California Institute for Rural Studies

California Institute for Rural Studies

Stories of California farming history often start at the Gold Rush. Sometimes, they reach back in time to include the Mexican or Spanish eras. But very rarely do we hear about the ways indigenous Californians were tending the landscape to produce food for thousands of years before contact with colonizers. The story of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and their stewardship of the land along California’s Central Coast is a crucial part of the history of how humans have interacted with this landscape. What they and other native people across the state have historically done here was NOT farming, they tell me. And yet their stewardship practices literally laid the groundwork for the existing farming industry. It turns out that this story not only stretches the standard timeline of California history back by thousands of years, but it asks us to expand our very definition of agriculture. Which is why it feels like a critically important place to dig in. 

This story features A-dae Romero-Briones, Valentin Lopez, Eleanor Castro, Rick Flores and Nancy Vail, with music by Nangdo, Kai Engel and Ketsa. Big thanks, as always, to Cal Ag Roots supporters, including the 11th Hour Project and California Humanities!

Photo Credit: A-dae Romero Briones. Elderberry harvest.

In July, 2019, three new storytellers joined the Cal Ag Roots team in response to a spring call-out for stories from rural California. Hektor Calderon, Jennifer Martinez and Erika Ramirez-Mayoral are co-producing stories and will be adding their voices to our podcast stream at the end of the year. We received many response to our call for storytellers and these three new audio producers were selected because of their compelling story ideas. Be sure to subscribe to the show– on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen– to catch their stories.

Jennifer Martinez (left) is a PhD student studying Public Policy at Portland State University. Ss as an extensive background studying public finance systems in the US and Mexico. Her dissertation explores the connection between remittances and public participation in Mexico. As a daughter to farmworkers and sister of a deported veteran, Jennifer is motivated to connect her advocacy efforts to her scholarly work. He Cal Ag Roots story digs into the history of the National Labor Relations Act to ask why in California, despite being the center of farm labor movements, framworker retirement funds are not guaranteed to provide a fair income to aging workers.

Hektor Calderon (center) was born in Mexico City and grew up in Santa Ana in Southern California. He received a BA from San Diego State in International Business with an emphasis in Management in the region of Latin America and completed an apprenticeship with the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where he earned an advanced certificate in Ecological Horticulture. Hektor has worked on diversified vegetable production operations both in Northern and Southern California and has also worked with orchard trees both residentially and on small-scale farms. Hektor is the son of immigrants, a protector of food justice, food sustainability and food sovereignty issues. Hektor is working as a Farmer Justice Fellow with the California Farmer Justice Collaborative, based out of the Agricultural and Land Based Training Association (ALBA) in the Salinas Valley. Hektor’s Cal Ag Roots story focuses on the history of exclusionary laws and policies that kept Californian farmers of color from owning land and which led to the fight for equal access to government resources which resulted in the passage of the 2017 Farmer Equity Act.

Erika Ramirez-Mayoral (right) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Communication at UC San Diego, was raised in border towns, Mexicali and El Centro, and is an Imperial and Coachella Valley native. Before coming to UC San Diego she organized alongside young women and parents around education equity and co-founded Raices Girls and Women of Color Network, and Las Nepantleras in Coachella, CA. Her interdisciplinary scholarship and activist work explore the use of oral histories and personal narratives in social justice circles and community development in rural California. She is particularly concerned with the role of counter-narratives in urban planning and public policy. In addition, Erika is interested in the memorialization of space and builds on understandings of community archives and public resources through her work in narrative film and radio projects with various women from the Eastern Coachella Valley. Erika is now a CIRS staff member in the Coachella Valley. For Cal Ag Roots, Erika is exploring the story of Modesta Avila, a young Californio woman who was arrested in 1889 for obstructing the path of the Santa Fe railroad through her family’s property. Avila challenged what it meant to be a citizen and hold land rights at a time when California was becoming part of American– and she has become an iconic figure in the struggle for Southern California land rights.

Nina Ichikawa has many identities. She’s the Interim Executive Director at the Berkeley Food Institute, a member of the Farmer Justice Collaborative, a fourth generation Japanese American, as well as a writer about Asian-American food histories. And she’s one of the most insightful thinkers about current issues in California food and farming. Tune in to this Cal Ag Roots episode to find out why Nina wants us all to be telling many more stories about California.

Nina Ichikawa

Antonio Roman Alcalá has a lot of ideas to share about power-building in the food movement. He’s an organizer, and a thinker, a theorizer and a farmer. Antonio strikes me as someone who manages to have his hands in the soil AND his eyes on the horizon at the same time. In our conversation at his kitchen table in his tiny Berkeley apartment, I got the impression that he’s often dreaming of possibilities for a collectively-owned, radically diversified farming future, but that he’s also deeply rooted in and actively drawing from history. Which is why, of course, I was excited to talk with him for this podcast.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá

This podcast is part of our series is called Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming. Tune in to these episodes to learn how food movement leaders’ understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work.

Antonio refers to a few Cal Ag Roots stories that you might want to listen to, if you haven’t caught them yet. Those are Podcast 1: There’s Nothing More Californian than KetchupPodcast 2: Can Land Belong to Those Who Work it? and Podcast 10: Política del Mole/ The Politics of Mole. Check those out wherever you get our podcast!

For centuries, people have been telling other people what to eat. The paleo diet fad might be new, but the idea that some people know what food is best, or healthiest, or cleanest and that other people need to be educated about that is definitely NOT new. It might be one of the oldest ideas we’ve explored on this show.  

And it has surprisingly little to do with knowledge about  food itself and a whole lot more to do with ideas about whose culture is “good.” Or about “living right.”  Or defending a social order. Dig just a little bit into the history of ideas about diet and you’ll quickly find a lot of ideas about race and about class and about power.

But one group of cultural organizers in CA’s Central Valley, at the Pan Valley Institute, has radically shifted this conversation– and by doing that they point the way towards a new model for food movement work that builds political and community strength from difference and diversity.

This story was produced by the California Institute for Rural Studies, Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of the Cal Ag Roots Project, and Li Schmidt. Special thanks to everyone who’s voices you heard here: Myrna Martinez, Erica Kohl-Arenas, Melanie DuPuis, Mario Sifuentez, Gail Feenstra, Charlotte Biltekoff and Brenda Ordaz. The music for our podcast was by Dayanna Sevilla and by the Nangdo.

Thanks also to our funders — the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.

This is a Thanksgiving podcast, featuring three tasty audio pieces that celebrate family food traditions and workers who have given their lives to fill our tables. As we lay our tables with feasts this week and gather around them to count our blessings, I wanted to offer you all a bit of a treat. It’s been a long, hard fall for many. So, maybe now more than ever, it seems like people need to take a little care, enjoy a few tasty audio tidbits.

Photo Credit: Lillian Thaoxaochay

Tune in to this 4th episode in our Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley series to hear two student-produced audio pieces by Cindy Cervantes and Omar Gonzalez and a powerful performance by roots-blues musician and Central Valley native Lance Canales.

Thank you to Cindy Cervantes, Omar Gonzalez– and to Lisa Morehouse and Mario Sifuentez who helped produce their pieces. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one, or on iTunes if you subscribe to this podcast. And by the way, if you rate the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, it will help other people discover it. We couldn’t have produced this story without the generous support of the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.

Thank you! And Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Mario Sifuentez is an Associate Professor of History at UC Merced who’s done a lot of thinking about the past and future of California’s Central Valley. He’s been involved with Cal Ag Roots since the very start of this project, both as an advisor and as an interviewee. (You can hear his voice on our third podcast, where he gives us real insight into the Bracero Program.) Mario has deep knowledge about the history of food production, and his current research digs up some interesting new stories about an activist group featured our Can Land Belong to Those Who Work It? podcast, which is why I wanted talk with him for this Digging Deep episode.

You’ll hear that Mario is also a delight to talk with– he’s real and genuine and doesn’t pull any punches. The Cal Ag Roots story we discuss is, admittedly, kind of obscure, and deals with some complicated federal laws about water subsidies and disputes over who should own farm land . But Mario is really clear on why people should know this story. He told me, “For corporations [farming Central Valley land] is part of their portfolio, right? They are not stewards of the land. And there’s no interest in protecting the land if it’s not profitable. They can let 20 thousand acres fallow, not because they think its good for the soil, but because of the market. When you have people who are stewards of the land, they are looking at it generationally. Thinking about it 100 years from now. Corporations just don’t have that kind of foresight.”

This is the second episode in our new Cal Ag Roots podcast series–Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming– which will be released every other month. I’m talking with people who are working to shift farming right now, bringing California farming into the future. And we’re talking about how their understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work. Each of the conversations will draw on Cal Ag Roots stories, so if you haven’t heard them all yet, take a listen here (or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher) !

Particularly relevant to today’s podcast is the last one we released—#2, Can Land Belong to Those Who Work it. We’ll keep on producing that style of podcasts and releasing them here—there are so, so many more histories to unearth. The two different kinds of podcasts are going to be in constant conversation with each other, so we’re hoping that you’ll tune into both and that each episode will be more meaningful that way.

Big THANK YOU goes out to Dr. Mario Sifuentez, of course, for the wonderful interview, to Nangdo for the use of all the music in today’s episode, and to Cal Ag Roots Funders including the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.

“I always feel like the day that the Hmong strawberry stand opens in the spring it feels like a holiday to me. It’s as good as Christmas and the best thing about living in Merced.”

Dawn Trook, producer of the radio play at the center of Podcast #7, told me there’s absolutely nothing sweeter than the strawberries grown by Hmong farmers in her home town, which is about an hour north of Fresno in California’s Central Valley. It turns out those strawberry stands that Dawn loves so much have a very unique place in the history of California’s Central Valley.

Photos by Lilian Thaoxaochay of her family’s farm in Fresno– GT Florists & Herbs.

For the past 20 or 30 years, Hmong-American farmers have been cultivating scraps of land throughout California’s Central Valley that had previously been considered un-farmable. Like so many waves of immigrants before them, these growers have dotted the Valley’s landscape with surprising patches of green. One family is even rumored to be growing strawberries underneath an overpass in Fresno.

Cal Ag Roots Podcast #7 showcases another performance from our live story-telling event, Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley. We’re in the middle of a podcast series based on Borderlands (check out Podcast #5, if you haven’t already heard it). You’ll know if you’ve listened to previous episodes that we’re not afraid to feature works of art as a way of exploring farming history. The radio play, Ours to Lose, written by Yia Lee and produced by the Valley Roots Project, is based on an interesting research process. The play was written using a Story Circle process that involved interviews with real farmers from across the Central Valley. The result is a powerful and revealing portrait of Hmong-American farmers that really rings true, as you’ll hear in the audio portrait of Lilian Thaoxaochay, Hmong-American farm-kid-turned-anthropologist, which is the second part of our podcast.

I sat with Lilian in the shade of a mulberry tree on her family’s farm on 106 degree day in July. The heat seemed to have absolutely no effect on her brain activity, because she had incredibly interesting things to say, like,

“Hmong agriculture is not about economy. It’s about survival and sustainability and making yourself.”

Lillian’s comments stitch the fiction of Ours to Lose with the reality of her life. In a way, Lilian and this episode are in direct conversation with Podcast #6, which was an interview I did with farmer Mai Nguyen.

Mai made a powerful comment in that episode, which has really stuck with me. She sometimes frames the urgency of her work in terms of what it takes to combat climate change. She said that she has approximately 40 tries over that many seasons to get things right. And that, she told us, is going to take a polyculture of many minds.

We need borderlands and the people who are really good at navigating them because they are places where there’s a cultural equivalent to the ecological concept of the “edge-effect.” In ecology the richest places are where edges of environments come together, where rivers meet the ocean, where forests meet the meadow, where mountains meet the valleys. And the cultural edges of places like the Central Valley, I think, are exactly where we’ll find the ideas and innovations we need to move us into a farming future that we all want to live in.

It seems like this planet is really ours to lose.

This story was produced by the California Institute for Rural Studies and Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, director of the Cal Ag Roots Project. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming in order to shed some light on current issues in agriculture. 

Special thanks to the voices heard in this episode including Janaki Jagganath, Dawn Trook, the Ours to Lose Actors—Fuchi Thao, Ka Vang and Fong Xiong and Lilian Thaoxaochay. Thanks to Lilian for lending us the use of her beautiful farm photos—featured throughout this article. https://www.facebook.com/gtflorists Music for this episode was by Xylo-Ziko and Komiku and the Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo.

And a shout out to Cal Ag Roots funders including the Food and Farming Communications Fund and the 11th Hour Project. Thank you!

Mai Nguyen is an innovative grain farmer and an influential farmer organizer. In this interview, the first in our new series of conversations with food movement leaders that we’re calling “Digging Deep,” Mai talks with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how examining our agricultural past is the only way to move into a just, healthy farming future.

As she puts it, “I, like other farmers, have perhaps 40 tries to grow my crops. That’s not many, but we have more data points by looking back and looking around us. Scale isn’t about one individual using their monoculture of the mind to manage vast acreage. Scale is time, human history, diversity — the polyculture of many minds working lands in different ways throughout time and at the same time.”

This new Cal Ag Roots podcast series — Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming — will be released every other month. I’ll be talking with people who are working to shift farming right now, bringing California farming into the future. And we’ll be talking about how their understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work. Each of the conversations will draw on Cal Ag Roots stories, so if you haven’t heard them all yet, take a listen here (or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher)!

Particularly relevant to today’s podcast is the last one we released—#5, Borderlands of the SJV. We’ll keep on producing that style of podcasts and releasing them here—there are so, so many more histories to unearth. The two different kinds of podcasts are going to be in constant conversation with each other, so we’re hoping that you’ll tune into both and that each episode will be more meaningful that way.

Big THANK YOU goes out to Mai Nguyen, of course, for the wonderful interview, to Nangdo for the use of all the music in today’s episode, and to Cal Ag Roots Funders including the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.

Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services took the phrase “securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” out of its mission statement. The agency now focuses on “fairness, lawfulness, efficiency…and safeguarding the homeland.” In this political climate of xenophobia, fear and racist attempts to re-write American history, it is crucial that we tell, tell loudly, and tell often the stories of wave after wave of immigrants who shaped this country through every era of its existence.

California’s agricultural empire, the great Central Valley, is no exception. From the Chinese to the Japanese to the Filipinos to the Portuguese to the Armenians to the Sikhs to the Hmong, dozens of groups of people from all around the planet have dug their shovels and fingers into California dirt, planted seeds and cuttings with their machines and their hands, carved irrigation furrows and ditches with their tools and their sweat and tended craggy, sandy, cropland until it burst with bounty.  

Cal Ag Roots Podcast #5: Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley shares stories about immigrant innovations in California farming that were told live at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. Tune in at the link above, or on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher to hear them.

Photos by Janaki Jagannath and featured on the Marigold Society website.

There’s a stubborn, pernicious myth that masks that truth, of course. If we learn about California agriculture at all, we learn about technological miracles, about landscapes transformed through a massive infusion of science and money. If we picture the farms behind our supermarket abundance at all, we picture white, male farmers—a thousand Old McDonalds and their quaint red barns. And if we think about who harvests our food at all, we think about Mexican workers, anonymous, hunched over, faces covered.

But of course the truth is so much richer than those tired storylines. Not only is the Central Valley one of the most diverse places in the United States, but the immigrants arriving there through the centuries brought something with them besides capable hands and strong bodies. Yes, many of them were funneled into the industrial agricultural system and became a key input for California growers as they implemented their crop plans. But many also came to CA from rural areas—the plains of Laos, the mountains of Oaxaca, the Azore islands—with social, cultural and ecological knowledge about how to grow food.

Their farming wisdom shaped the industry in many small and large ways. A Japanese farmer invented the strawberry basket that allowed that fragile fruit to get to market. The iconic bing cherry is named for the Chinese farmer who first bred them. Filipino farm workers were striking and union organizing in farm fields before the formation of the United Farm Workers. Portugese immigrants invented California’s dairy industry and by the 1960’s were producing more than 90% of the milk in the state.

And because those stories are textured, vibrant and reflect reality more than the glossy, technology-worshiping, stories of powerful agricultural magnates, they crack open the myth of California farming. Telling these stories, telling them loudly, and telling them often is the only way to secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants—and to safeguard the homeland.

Huge thanks to the voices heard in the Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley podcast: Isao Fujimoto, Janaki Jagannath, Marisol Baca, Aideed Medina and Lupe Martinez (music). The Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo. We’re grateful to the Merced Multicultural Arts Center for hosting our live Borderlands event and to Tim Emerich and Roberto Mora for helping us to capture audio and video from the event.

Special shout-out to two key Cal Ag Roots funders: the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund. We couldn’t do this work without you! 

(Photos by Janaki Jagannath and featured on the Marigold Society website.)

On a rainy night on March 21, 2018 in Merced, Cal Ag Roots friends and fans gathered to hear stories celebrating the people who skillfully criss-cross cultural borders dozens of times a day as they shape the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. Borderlands was a live story-telling event that challenged the common misunderstanding that the Central Valley is an agricultural wonder of the world because of a magical mixture of technology, capital and land. Taken together, the Borderlands performances, told an entirely different story. The stage lights of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center were trained that evening on people from communities who have come to the Valley from around the world with cultural, social and ecological farming knowledge that has helped to build the farming industry.

Image by Janaki Jagannath, who created a colorful altar honoring farmworkers at the event.

The black-box theater at the Merced Multicultural arts center was filled with color for Borderlands– Janaki Jagannath built an altar honoring farmworkers that featured a bounty of locally-grown fruits and vegetables along with farm implements, photos and the words “Quien Cuidará Su Jardín?” (Who Will Tend Their Garden?) and gorgeous woodcuts by Patricia Wakida (from Wasabi Press) set the scene for the  Borderlands story-tellers’ stirring performances. We heard from Rosa Lopez, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca with a mole-making business in Fresno, and from Brian Nagata, a Buddhist priest who’s studied the history of Buddhist temples in the Valley. We were enchanted by a couple of student-produced audio pieces about family recipes by Omar Gonzalez and Cindy Cervantes and spell-bound by a performance of Ours to Lose, a play about a Hmong farming family written by Yia Lee and performed by Fong Xiong, Ka Vang and Fuchi Thao. A video produced by the Pan Valley Institute, From Our Roots/Desde Nuestras Raices brought the voices and faces of immigrants from across the Valley into the theater. Two powerful, Valley-based poets, Aideed Medina and Marisol Baca, treated us to a collaborative performance crafted just for Borderlands that explored the ways their stories and communities are intertwined. And then there was the music! Lupe Martinez opened the evening with songs and guitar from his field organizing days– and he was joined on vocals by Janaki Jagannath and Martha Armas-Kelly. Dayanna Sevilla sang a beautiful Cumbia del Mole and Lance Canales closed out the show with an incredible performance of Woody Guthrie’s Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee)

This was the second major Cal Ag Roots live story-telling event since the project’s launch. Since March, I’ve been doing a lot of comparing Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley with our first live event, Docks to Delta, which was performed on the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015. Where Docks to Delta stimulated vibrant conversation and revealed the history behind the landscape we were traveling through, Borderlands moved the audience powerfully with passionate, often emotional, performances in a beautiful black-box theater setting. Designed as a kind of “after-party” for the 2018 Rural Justice Summit at UC Merced, we wanted Borderlands to explore some of the themes we had been discussing all day long at the Summit from a personal perspective, drawing heavily on art and story to open up new thinking about the Valley. I performed a framing Cal Ag Roots audio piece (which you’ll hear in the next Cal Ag Roots podcast episode), but for the majority of the evening we heard from San Joaquin Valley residents, telling their own stories, in their own voices. And the result was an incredibly heartfelt evening that left me feeling fortunate enough to have gotten an intimate glimpse into Valley life. 

For those of you who missed the live performance of Borderlands, never fear! We captured the evening on video and audio, in order to share the stories widely. Over the next few months we’ll be featuring some of the highlights from Borderlands live as part of our Cal Ag Roots podcast– and, when we can, we’ll be sharing short videos from the event that relate to each of those stories. Here’s one of our absolute favorite moments from the evening, performed by Marisol Baca and Aideed Medina: Enláces: A Collaboration Between Two Poets.

Stay tuned for more from Borderlands– be sure to subscribe to the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast fix! 

And thank you to Cal Ag Roots funders whose support makes our work possible: The 11th Hour Project, The Food and Farming Communications Fund, The National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, The Switzer Foundation and a generous group of individual donors.

Picture your produce aisle: Strawberries. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Celery. Onions. These crops fill shopping carts across the country and a full third of them come from California. There was a time, though, when California fields grew mostly wheat. Huge tracts of the land we now know as the salad bowl of the world were then pumping out massive quantities of grain, not fruits or vegetables. In the early twentieth century California farming underwent a major transformation that created the abundance you can see in your produce-aisle today.

And one particular group of California farmers really laid the foundation for that transformation.  We don’t often hear their names and many of their stories have been long-buried.

According to Isao Fujimoto, “The early success of the Japanese farmers led the Japanese to be productive farmers, but instead of being praised, they got attacked. And the attack came in the form of Alien Land Laws.”   

In a lot of ways, you could say Japanese immigrants started California’s produce industry. But racist immigration laws and policies tried to push them out of the rural landscape. A few influential farming families dug in, shaping the industry in powerful ways. Many others left farming as a way of preserving their families and moving forward with their lives.

As we’ll hear, the Japanese American story in California farming is about tremendous ingenuity that’s met with a pretty sinister backlash. And it’s about ugliness that’s met with some pretty powerful resistance.

And the story couldn’t be more relevant right now. As Nikiko Masumoto puts it, “If we as a CA we, as a diverse, beautiful CA we, want to heal some of the wounds of the past, we have to look at what happened before and why has there been an exodus out of farming by some communities of color.”

You might never look at your produce section in the same way again.


You can listen to Founding Farmers: Japanese Growers in California by clicking the red play button above, or by subscribing to the Cal Ag Roots on iTunes. If you review our podcast on iTunes, more people will be able to fund us!

Special thanks to Marissa Ortega-Welch for editing and production help and to Jen Sedell who worked closely with us on this story. Big thanks go out to everyone who’s voices you heard here: Nikiko and Mas Masumoto, AG Kawamura, Tom Izu, Libby Christensen, Jeannie Shinozuka, Isao Fujimoto and Cecilia Tsu. Thanks also to folks who gave me important background information for this story including Naomi Hirahara, Warren Hiyashi, Patricia Wakida, Nina Ichikawa and Valerie Matsumoto. Music for the story was by Komiku and the Cal Ag Roots theme music is by Nangdo– find them both on the Free Music Archive. The beautiful woodcut featured here, Peach Picker/California, was used with permission from Patricia Wakida, of Wasabi Press.