California Institute for Rural Studies

California Institute for Rural Studies

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.

We’ve been hearing a lot of searingly anti-immigrant statements in the news lately. It’s hard to imagine, but Mexican immigrants who came to work in California’s farm fields weren’t always treated as criminals. In fact, Braceros were guestworkers sent to the US by the Mexican government during WWII as part of the war effort. They were young men, sent to save the crops left in the fields as American men enlisted. And they were seen at the time as heroes pitching in– a forgotten part of the “greatest generation.”

Of course, as well-intentioned as the program might have been, things were never easy for immigrant workers here. This is the story of how the Bracero program became abusive over the course of decades, eventually crumbling under organizing pressure from farm workers. And it’s also the surprising story of what that farm worker movement missed in bringing down the Bracero program– told here by people with personal connections to the work.

This story was produced in collaboration with Ignacio Ornelas, History PhD Candidate at UCSC and Archivist at Stanford University, Mario Sifuentez, Assistant Professor of History at UC Merced and Frank Bardacke, independent scholar. Special thanks to Ignacio Ornelas for sharing audio from his extensive oral histories with braceros. Aubrey White served as audio produced for this story. 

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.

The Docks to Delta Route Map

This interview with Project Director Ildi Carlisle-Cummins was done for the California Humanities blog and first appeared there. Click on the map for Docks to Delta Full Route Map. 


Interview:


CH: Tell us a little about yourself and the organization.
ICC: I direct the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies. Cal Ag Roots puts historical roots under current California food and farming change movements by telling the story of California agricultural development in innovative, useful and relevant ways. There is deep knowledge about the structures, driving forces and key moments that have shaped California’s food system among recognized “experts” and those who have participated in the creation of CA farming, but this knowledge doesn’t always inform food movement work. Cal Ag Roots shares stories from this wide range of people, opening new lines of communication among them.


Cal Ag Roots launched this fall with a live storytelling event and podcast series, supported by Cal Humanities, called Docks to Delta. Docks to Delta Live took place in September on the Capitol Corridor train (which runs from Oakland to Sacramento) where 90 guests heard 3 stories about California farming history that were connected to the landscape we were traveling through. This fall, we’re working on recording those stories as podcasts that can be listened to by any of the 2 million Capitol Corridor train riders– or anyone else with access to the internet. Stay tuned for those which will be finished this winter. You’ll be able to find them on our here.


Prior to launching the Cal Ag Roots Project, I worked as a researcher at UC Davis, studying community food systems and earning an M.S. in Community Development. I have spent my entire career in various corners of the California food movement. I was Associate Director of the youth empowerment and food justice program, “Food, What?!” and ran the Farm to School Program for Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). I worked with food banks, health departments, school garden organizations and school districts– basically with anyone interested in shifting California farming towards sustainability. Throughout my work in the community food systems movement, my approach has always emphasized partnership, bridge-building and justice. 

CH: What inspired you to do this project?
ICC: Cal Ag Roots grew out my varied experiences in the California food movement. I found that as much energy, enthusiasm and idealism as the people in the food movement tend to have, our work isn’t always grounded in history which leaves us to repeat mistakes, unintentionally replicate injustices and, at times, spend energy fighting the wrong battles. Cal Ag Roots is designed to help people understand why California farming works the way that it does so that they can be more effective in shifting it.

And, it’s important that the project is fun and engaging. Activists need to be inspired and fed, since there’s always so much risk of burnout, so we launched Cal Ag Roots with an event on a train. That seemed to work– we sparked rich dialogue about the Docks to Delta stories and people told us that they really enjoyed themselves. 


CH: Why did you choose this method of storytelling?
ICC: I wanted to tell stories that would expand our thinking about California farming, so uncovering stories that hadn’t yet been told made sense as a process. I chose to focus on oral stories and audio production because I wanted the stories to be as accessible as possible to an increasingly busy and inundated audience. While people might not have time or attention spans for reading long articles or watching videos, many people now listen to the radio or podcasts in the car or on their phones (or in the case of our Docks to Delta podcast, while commuting on the train).

Personally, I’ve been really moved by podcasts that I’ve listened to, particularly as I was traveling through a landscape that was connected to the stories I was hearing. There’s something so intimate and powerful about having a story come through headphones into your ears. You don’t have to worry about reacting to the storyteller, being a good audience member, or staying focused on words on a page. The story’s delivered right to you, which I think gives you plenty of space for listening deeply and absorbing the story into your life.
That said, the Cal Ag Roots Project is focusing storytelling events and audio pieces, but we are also be putting up short articles, photos, maps and other resources related to the stories on our Story Hub and can learn more about the Cal Ag Roots project on the CIRS website.
 
CH: What challenges have you encountered?  What stands out as special accomplishments?
ICC: I’ve said that putting together the Docks to Delta Live event was kind of like building a big Rube Goldberg machine. (You know, the kind of contraption where you line up the tracks, set the golf ball rolling and that drops into the cup, spilling the vinegar onto the baking soda which inflate the balloon, etc. until eventually an alarm is shut off by a fly swatter– or some other task is accomplished.) Putting together our live event with 3 storytellers, 2 narrators, a singer, 16 other voices on tap through an iPad soundboard and broadcasting a program to 90 people wearing audio headgear– all while moving along the tracks on a train traveling from the Bay Area to Sacramento– was a challenge. But somehow we pulled it off and people were very engaged. I think it was a unique experience, and from the feedback we’ve received, one that will really leave a lasting impression on attendees. In fact, it went so well that we’re starting to think about other train routes around the state where we could host similar events.

I think the podcast has the potential to really stir up conversation about California agriculture’s past and future.


CH: What do you hope will result from the exhibit and public programs?  For participants, community, and your organization?
ICC: I see Cal Ag Roots and Docks to Delta as storytelling projects that help to put current conversations about California farming in historical context, orienting people to how our food system developed. I think it would be hard to look at the landscape along the Capitol Corridor rail line in the same way after hearing our Docks to Delta stories.  I also see this as an organizing project– encouraging dialogue between people who might never have realized they have common goals and sparking new thinking about where we’re headed in California farming.


CH: Why do you think the humanities are important to our lives?
ICC: I think humanities projects encourage us to see the world in all of its rich complexity. My favorite work in the humanities shakes us out of our everyday lives and patterns of thinking, surprising us with insights that help us understand the people– and places– around us in new ways.