California Institute for Rural Studies

California Institute for Rural Studies

When you think of California cuisine, do you imagine baby lettuces doused in olive oil, and carefully arranged on white plates?

If you’ve ever driven down the Highway 99 corridor, which cuts through California’s Central Valley, you might have a different sense of the state’s contributions to global food culture. Driving 99 any hour of the day or night, from July through September, you’ll likely have to swerve around trucks mounded impossibly high with tomatoes. You’ll pass acres and acres of dense, low tomato plants being harvested by machines that spit them out into trailers bound for a string of processing facilities that dot the valley. 

This year promises to be a record for processing tomatoes, with a projected 14.3 million tons harvested. California’s Central Valley will, yet again, play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply. On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with California cuisine. But, as it turns out, there’s an incredible tale that ties the two together in surprising ways.

When plant breeder Jack Hanna and engineer Coby Lorenzen, two scientists at the University of California at Davis, teamed up in the mid-1950’s to invent a machine that could mechanically harvest tomatoes, no one thought they could do it.  The laughingstock of the Davis Plant Science department for more than a decade, the two made countless prototypes that failed—tomatoes split and turned to juice in the field, the machine broke down after hitting clods of dirt. 

Plus, when they started, it was cheap and efficient to pay farm laborers, many of whom were brought into the country from Mexico through the Bracero program. These guest workers harvested tomatoes by hand in much the same way that workers in places pick fresh tomatoes today: very gently.

By 1963, rumors started to circulate that the Bracero program was coming to an end and the tomato industry broke into a cold sweat over the prospect of losing 80 percent of the cheap labor force they used for tomato picking. In a dramatic tale of perseverance and ingenuity, Hanna and Lorenzen achieved the break-through they’d been waiting for. The industry quickly pinned their hopes on their rickety machine and the new, tough, easily de-stemmed tomato hybrid affectionately named “vf-145” that scientists were developing alongside it, in hopes that it would withstand a mechanical harvester. 

With help from a local machinist named Ernest Blackwelder, and an eager network of financiers and U.C. Cooperative Extension agents, the California processing tomato industry mechanized almost overnight. Within five years, 99.9 percent of the industry was using the mechanical harvesters, and most farmers were planting the comparatively tasteless hybrid tomatoes built to withstand them. And processing facilities retooled their systems to receive the mechanically harvested fruit, reversing the practice of paying premiums for hand-harvested tomatoes.

Twenty years later, nearly all of the tomatoes grown in the U.S. for tomato sauce, paste, ketchup, juice, and other processed foods are harvested by Hanna and Lorenzen’s once-scorned machine.

As Carolyn Thomas, Professor of American Studies at U.C. Davis, points out, the invention of the tomato harvester was not just a technological advance. It was a genuine breakthrough in the way that scientists thought about agricultural development. In order to be successful, the plant scientist had to think first about the physical properties of the tomato as it passed through the machine, rather than thinking about it as a crop destined for markets and mouths. For the thing to work, Hanna had to prioritize compatibility with industrial harvesting and shipping systems over flavor—a breeding practice that we’ve since seen again and again, and which earned the variety the unappetizing nickname of “square tomato.”

Luckily for the industry, Hanna’s new variety landed in foods where it would be seasoned with plenty of sugar and salt. In one telling of this story, this technological breakthrough saved an industry in California that almost certainly would have moved to Mexico as the Braceros returned home. 

But the story doesn’t end there. When the University of California released the tomato harvester, they also set loose a machine into California farm fields that ended up having huge social impacts. For one, the new harvesters were expensive and required a lot more land to make a profit. In the first five years after the machine’s release, 4,428 of 5,000 tomato growers went out of business (a whopping 82 percent consolidation in the industry) and an estimated 32,000 farm workers lost their jobs.

 At the same time, another band of characters straight out of central casting—a rag-tag bunch of creative and passionate activists—weren’t about to let the U.C. land grant system, a public institution with a mandate to serve all Californians, get away with that.

As the tomato industry transformed and unemployment swept the Valley, a varied coalition of activists solidified into the California Agrarian Action Project, or CAAP, which would later morph into an organization that is still defending small farming today: the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).

In 1979, CAAP fired the opening volley in what would be a 10 year legal battle against the University of California, suing on grounds that the tomato harvester in particular—and U.C.’s agricultural research program in general—violated the 1887 Hatch Act, which provided federal dollars for agricultural research intended to support family farming. 

From 1979 to 1989, the case moved through the judicial system, with CAAP winning their first suit and eventually losing on appeal. Along the way, however, the activists managed to kick up a whole lot of dust, creating a public debate about who benefitted from technology that came from U.C. labs and whose research priorities consistently fell by the wayside. This P.R. nightmare forced the University to create the Small Farm Center in 1979, which would specifically focus on the needs of low-income and small farmers in California.

Building on this momentum, in 1985, CAAP co-authored a senate bill, which funded the creation of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), an initiative that that would support and legitimize California’s budding sustainable farming industry. CAAP and like-minded organizations with names that are familiar to today’s food movement advocates in California, including the California Institute for Rural Studies and the Ecological Farming Association—were off and running, creating fertile ground for the development of alternative farming systems across the state. 

In other words, the mechanized tomato harvester may have paved the way for both the industrialization of our food system and California’s local food revolution (an early spark for the national farm-to-table movement). Advocacy organizations and U.C. programs born out of the tomato harvester fight nurtured the type of farms and farming practices that are highlighted each night on the pristine plates of restaurants like Chez Panisse, Wolfgang Puck, and the French Laundry. And many of the growers who made California cuisine possible were responding to industrial production practices as much as they were drawn farming for it’s own purposes. 

So as tomato truckers make more trips than ever to Central Valley processing plants this summer, we can take this story as inspiration to ask essential questions, such as: What kind of California agricultural system would benefit all of us? Who does the system support and who does it exploit? What problems should the Hanna and Lorenzen research teams of today be solving?

While adding ketchup to California cuisine’s white plate might seem like sacrilege to some, digging down to reveal the roots of our food system—and getting real about California cuisine—might help more of us keep these critical questions in focus.

Cal Ag Roots stories focus on pivotal moments in the development of California agriculture. This story and podcast are the first in a three-part series called Docks to Delta, which launched with a  live event aboard the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015. Photos published here by permission of the photographer, Richard Steven Street.

Many thanks to Audio Producer Aubrey White and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, storytellers Bill Hoerger, Izzy Martin, Don Villarejo and Bill Friedland, and the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council including Lisa Morehouse, who provided crucial editorial advice for this project.

“That land is so rich you could eat it with a spoon!” exclaimed Tom Willey, small-scale organic farmer in California’s Central Valley, referring to the swath of land on the west side of the Valley that makes up the Westlands Water District

He went on: “I swear to God, they used to say that any idiot could be a good farmer out there because the soil was just so fertile. It was true, absolutely true. And there’s no question that, under a different set of circumstances, 160 acre farms could have been successful out there.”

That figure, 160 acres, is significant. Until 1982, there was a law on the books—the 1902 Reclamation Act— that limited the size of farms allowed to use government subsidized irrigation water across the Western U.S. to just 160 acres.  That’s much, much smaller than the kind of massive-scale agricultural development that characterizes California farming in general and the Central Valley in particular.

What may sound to modern readers like a quaint rule was actually meant to be an important safeguard against consolidation of land, power and wealth in the developing West. Most people understand that California agriculture is big, but unless you’ve spent time in the Central Valley it’s hard to imagine how vast the industry really is. Farms stretch for un-interrupted miles, sprawling across tens of thousands of acres. The Westlands Water District spans 600,000 acres (the size of Rhode Island) with fewer than 600 landowners.  And farmland values are sky-high in California—the USDA’s 2015 Land Values Summary lists California’s average cropland price at $10,690/acre with strawberry land on the Central Coast rumored to be selling this year for $60,000/acre. This makes it nearly impossible for aspiring farmers, whether they’re young folks or former farm workers, to become farm owners. Had the 160 acre rule been enforced, the situation would be much different; California agriculture, at least in places using subsidized irrigation water, would have been dominated by family-scale farms. So what happened?

 In the late 1970s, a group of Fresno-based activists trained a laser focus on this rule and on enforcement of Reclamation Law to promote small farm development, stirring up a surprising—if forgotten—amount of dust.

National Land for People (NLP) was founded in 1964 by a journalist, photographer and energetic, populist visionary from Wisconsin named George Ballis. NLP’s goal was straightforward: they wanted small farmers and farm workers to own the 160 acre parcels that the Reclamation Act promised. They drew their motto—La Tierra Pertenece al que la Trabaja/Land Belongs to Those Who Work It—from Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Ballis teamed up with a group of people who were committed to bringing attention to the fact that water law was not being enforced in California—and that a small collection of large landowners were getting rich off of government water subsidy. There was Berge Bulbulian, Armenian raisin-grape grower and self-described “farmer front-man” with a sharp wit and socialist politics; Marc Lasher, a social worker from New York who wanted to work for justice in the “belly of the monster”; Mary Louise Frampton, a young civil rights lawyer with a novel (and successful) approach to suing for enforcement of the law; Eddie Nolan, organizer of African American farmers in the Valley, and Jessie De La Cruz, one of the first female organizers for the United Farm Workers who would go on to put together an important farming cooperative in the Valley.  And there was Maia Ballis, George’s “collaborator in life,” joyful co-conspirator and talented graphic artist.

Photo (from left to right) Marc Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballis and Mary Louise Frampton, taken in 2015.

Fired up about what they saw as a wave of “water crimes” being committed in the Valley, the small, volunteer NLP team pieced together detailed records of “questionable land deals” in the Westlands Water District. 

From a house-turned-organizing-office in Fresno, the group created maps, graphics, and a fiery newsletter sharing their findings with thousands of supporters. George Ballis pulled no punches. In the newsletter, he called corporate farming businesses “the biggies.” He further propagandized NLP’s work with a graphic of an over-sized dollar bill that read “Westlands Water District” on the top and “2 Billion Dollar Boondoggle” on the bottom, with the line “Paid for by U.S. Taxpayers” running up the side.

In spite of their straight-no-chaser rhetoric, NLP made friends in high places, earning the respect of Congressmen like George Miller and officials in the Department of the Interior, who oversaw Reclamation Act projects. 

In addition to speaking truth to power in the Valley, the group also made many trips to Washington D.C. NLP members squeezed into a tiny van to drive across the country to testify at Congressional hearings, staying at the YMCA on their no-salary budget. In spite of Berge’s urging that NLP buy George a three-piece suit to wear for these occasions, he insisted on sporting a long beard and “hippie” clothes to the hearing.  George didn’t soften his argument when he was before Congress either, exclaiming things like, “this isn’t a hearing, it’s a pep rally!”

However, building key political allies was not enough to force the government to stop the existing illegal actions in the Westlands. Scraping together a little money, the NLP hired Mary Louise Frampton in 1974 to sue the Department of Interior for not enforcing the Reclamation Act. Fresh out of law school and 24 years old, Mary Louise devised a unique strategy for the suit. Against all odds she won a court order halting land deals across the Western states. The NLP won appeal after appeal– all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.

The Central Valley buzzed with controversy. NLP members were labeled “communists.” Even as Valley newspapers wrote of “the biggies” preparing for battle, Maia Ballis reported that, “It looked like we had won!”  When the Department of the Interior held hearings on the proposed rules and regulations that they would then use to enforce the law, members of the NLP received death threats. Mary Louise remembers an FBI agent standing guard outside her motel room in El Centro as protection while she prepared to testify. Growers went to outrageous lengths to silence the NLP. According to Mary Louise, they flew helicopters over hearings to drown out testimony and pulled in huge farm equipment to kick up clouds of dust over the grand stands.

And then, in 1980, former Governor of California Ronald Reagan strode into the White House, bringing with him a whole new administration—and Department of the Interior. Some activists speculate that promises to overhaul the Reclamation Act helped him get elected.

Whether or not it was a campaign promise, Reagan’s administration worked with Congress to pass the Reclamation Reform Act. Defenders of the new law claimed Reagan’s changes “modernized” the Act, updating it to reflect the costs of farming in the 1980’s. From the NLP point of view, the law was gutted, with the acreage limitation raised to 960 and the residency requirement eliminated.

Berge Bulbulian read this as a classic capitalist maneuver.  “You gamble on breaking the law to make as much profit as possible and then when the law is being enforced you use the profits you made to sway political interests to change the law so your crimes are legal.” 

In 1982, NLP admitted defeat on the water issue. George wrote in an NLP newsletter, “We lost not just because of biggie bucks. We lost because what we advocated is against the warp of our time.” But, he insisted, their work was not over: “The struggle to create a democratic, responsible and sustainable food system goes on […] Now we turn our full attention to creating new cultural, social, economic realities on a small scale.“

In what could be seen as a tactical shift, or possibly as retreat, George, Maia and Marc uprooted NLP from the Valley, planting it again on 40 acres they called Sun Mountain, east of Fresno at the base of the Sierra Nevada. Here National Land for People morphed into the People Food and Land Foundation and George poured his boundless energy into building a passive solar house, creating perennial gardens and demonstrating what sustainable living could look like—outside of the reach of “the biggies.”

NLP didn’t win their battle. California farming continued to consolidate and corporate land-holdings ballooned. It’s easy to superimpose 2015 cynicism onto this National Land for the People story and wonder if their Reclamation Act enforcement fervor was foolish. What’s striking about Berge, Maia, George, Marc, Mary Louise and all the other NLP crusaders is the tremendous optimism and idealism that they brought to their work. NLP’s heyday was 30 years ago, not 100, and yet they held an entirely different vision for the Valley—one that would have broken down massive landholdings held by white landowners and transferred them to small farmers and farm workers of color. They looked at the stark, mostly unpopulated land of Westlands and imagined a string of thriving communities and a base for democracy in the Valley. Their optimism, it seems, was the ultimate political act.

Today, with water on everyone’s mind, Californians have a rare opportunity to rethink how we want to use this precious, and highly subsidized, resource. Is it to deliver profit into the hands of a few? Or is there another possibility?

Tom Willey wistfully reflected, “I once wished to hell I’da had 160 acres out there, really.” For many activists in the California food movement, it’s hard not to agree. 

Photo Caption: Taken in July, 2015 of NLP members (from right to left) Marc Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballis and Mary Louise Frampton.

Cal Ag Roots stories focus on pivotal moments in the development of California agriculture. This story and podcast are the second in a three-part series called Docks to Delta, which launched with a live event aboard the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015.

Many thanks to Audio Producer Aubrey White, storytellers Tom Willey, Mary Louise Frampton, Maia Ballis, Berge Bulbulian, Marc Lasher, John Heywood and to the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council including Lisa Morehouse, Janaki Jagganath and Mario Sifuentez who provided crucial editorial advice for this project. Thanks also to historian Clifford Welch, who provided critical background information about this story as well as connection to NLP members.

Docks to Delta, Live– the public launch event for our Cal Ag Roots Project– was a hit!

On September 26, 2015, 90 event guests boarded the Capitol Corridor Amtrak to listen to Cal Ag Roots’ first three stories about key moments in California agriculture while traveling through a landscape relevant to the stories. As the conversation between event attendees heated up on the return train home, we could sense that we’d made a real impact. Several people told us that this type of event and conversation is exactly what the California food movement needs and one longtime leader even said, “I think this will be remembered as a seminal moment in this movement—either you were on the train or you weren’t.” Cal Ag Roots has launched!

This fall and winter

We will be honing the stories that we told live on the train into podcasts that will be accessible online by a much wider audience—including the 2 million people that ride the Capitol Corridor train each year. (A partnership with Amtrak means that it will be promoted to all their passengers.) We also have offers to tell the stories live again on two UC campuses—Davis and Merced—and other plans to continue the dialogue about how these stories impact current food and farming policy work.In 2016, we’ll continue to work with people from across California, as well as our dedicated Advisory Council to choose the second set of stories to bring to the food movement’s attention. Docks to Delta, for anyone who hasn’t been following our announcements about this project, is part podcast series and part live event: the stories that were told live on September 26, 2015 will be available via the Cal Ag Roots Story Hub as podcasts this winter.

If you missed the event, please stay tuned for the stories.Feel free to contact us to be added to the Cal Ag Roots newsletter or reach out to Project Director Ildi Carlisle-Cummins at with ideas and questions. Check out this short video (made for last summer’s crowd-funding campaign) which gives you a flavor of Docks to Delta: