The World’s Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power: Science and Industrial Agriculture in California (MIT Press, 2008), with its author Christopher Henke. Henke is an assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University, an STS scholar, and a contributor to Colgate’s environmental studies program.
Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power, says its publisher, “explores the ways that science helped build the Salinas Valley and California’s broader farm industry.” In doing so, Henke provides an account of “how agricultural scientists and growers have collaborated–and struggled–in shaping this industry.” In a spirit similar to the prior book in this author-blogger series (Keith Warner’s Agroecology in Action), Henke’s work offers academic research that is engaged with public and social problems by drawing from interdisciplinary science studies and from ecologically informed social science research. The book deals with expertise, knowledge, ecology of the soil, ecology of power, state-based mechanisms, the influence of progressive-era politics, field trials, pest management, post-War farm labor crises, migrant laborers, John Steinbeck and more. And it has that big beaker on the front.
This is the fifteenth in our series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a four-part conversation about the book. Please be encouraged to offer any questions and comments about the book, the research, and the topic.
THE WORLD’S FAIR: It’s set in California’s Salinas Valley; it has a beaker on the front cover; you’re a sociologist of science. What in the world is this book about?
CHRIS HENKE: Didn’t you know they grow lettuce in giant beakers? It’s a miracle. Actually, the book is about the role of science in creating and sustaining the farm industry in California. I focus on the case of the fresh produce industry, which is centered around the Salinas Valley, a small coastal valley that is south of San Francisco, and just inland from Monterey Bay. It’s a great place to grow lettuce and other delicate vegetables because the Salinas Valley doesn’t get nearly as hot in the summer as areas further inland. The basic argument I make is that, despite the wonderful climate, agricultural production on the scale seen in this valley and other locales around California is not a given. It requires lots of labor, water, technologies, and organization. In all these things and many others, agricultural science has been there to help the farm industry develop and respond to problems. In this way, though our food system seems kind of monolithic, it is actually something that has a history of contingency, and a lot of the examples in the book are meant to show how expertise has been used to support an industry that grosses more than $2 billion each year, just in the Salinas Valley.
WF: So your case is part of a larger story of California agriculture, I take it.
CH: Yeah, it is. Though not typically known as a farm state, California actually leads the US in the dollar value of its farm production, largely on the basis of valuable fruit, nut, and produce crops. Whereas a state like Iowa is covered with corn from top to bottom and side to side, agriculture in California is typified by a series of valleys that specialize in intensive crops such as grapes, oranges, almonds, and lettuce that cost more to produce but can also bring in a lot more profit when the market conditions are favorable.
WF: You noted that the book was about the role of science in the California farm industry. How do you get at that story?
CH: The specific case that I describe is an institution known as Cooperative Extension, which is a system of county-based agricultural experts employed by the University of California and most other states in the US. Through a series of case studies that begins in the early twentieth century and continues through to the present, I show how local Cooperative Extension experts became enmeshed in the power structure of the farm industry, enabling its creation and helping it weather numerous crises throughout the twentieth century. Though it’s a common idea that experts in such situations are “in the pocket” of vested interests—and represent vested interests in their own right—one thing I emphasize in the book is the ambivalence on the part of both scientist and growers to work together on some of these problems. One of the inherent difficulties of being an expert is trying to convince others that one has the right answers. So although the book is about industrial agriculture, it is also about the power and politics of expertise.
WF: You’re talking about agricultural science, agricultural technology, and patterns of interaction between expert advisors and local farmers in California. Who is your main audience? What’s the main takeaway for the various intended audiences?
CH: Though the academic audience is the most likely one to take notice of the book, I hope that folks interested in agricultural and science policy will be interested, too. The main takeaways for the academic audience are my conceptual ideas about how networks of power are maintained through the negotiation of experts, the state, and industrial interests. In the book I develop the concept “ecology of power” to analyze how power structures are created not only through money and political access, but also such mundane things as how crops are fertilized or how bugs are killed. The idea boils down to the question, “what is the root of power?” Though we often use phrases such as “knowledge is power,” this really isn’t the full story. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t use it, it won’t make you powerful. What I show is that the kind of power that growers or agricultural scientists can be said to have is literally grounded in the interaction of farming places and the ways that people farm there. This not only helps to explain where power comes from, but it also helps us understand why people might want to do something in one way but not another—the ecology of power becomes a kind of structure that interested parties want to maintain and control. When something goes wrong, they want to fix it and keep it going.
WF: I’m generally more inclined to dig into the theory and concepts, but for the sake of the blog space let me push back to your case studies.
CH: Sure. Though all this sounds fairly abstract, I do in fact demonstrate the concepts through several concrete case studies. One in particular focuses on environmental problems related to farm production in the Salinas Valley. Several years ago, the EPA designated US agriculture the largest non-point source of water pollution in the country. Water running off from farm fields or seeping into the ground can carry pesticides and fertilizers, and this is especially true of agriculture in the Salinas Valley, where chemical inputs are used in heavy doses. Several areas throughout the county have drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, which is a key ingredient in fertilizer. Many suspect that nitrates have leeched into the water supply from farm fields, and during my research in the Valley, this was an issue that agricultural scientists and others were trying to address. Their solutions, however, often conflicted with the growing practices used in the vegetable industry, which uses fertilizer in generous amounts as a kind of insurance. Even though experiments showed that reduced fertilizer use had no impact on crop yields (and that one could save some money from reducing the amount of fertilizer used), growers tended not to trust these results, and feared that it would be too risky to use less fertilizer on their valuable crops. The existing structure of practices, technologies, and even culture in this place resisted change, and pointed to a kind of “ecology” of stuff that encompassed soil and plants, but also things like fertilizer, industry practices, state policies, and commodity markets. The value of this ecology model is that it helps to highlight the diverse elements that make a system of production work, and what it would take to change it.
WF: That sounds useful beyond your case, then, this “ecology of power” model.
CH: I hope so. It’s this last point that I think can make the book interesting and valuable to those interested in policy issues. When controversies come up, we always turn to experts to ask, “what should we do?” My book shows how experts themselves become enmeshed in “the problem,” but perhaps even more importantly, it shows how complex systems of production—like industrial agriculture—are made up of a blend of social and material stuff. Once we see this ecology, it doesn’t serve to cut through the complexity so much as to account for it, and suggest potential paths for intervening in it.
I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women’s empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge
XI: D. Graham Burnett on whether whales are fish and who says so
XII: Michelle Murphy on Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty
XIII: Gregg Mitman on How Allergies Shape Lives and Landscapes
XIV: Keith Warner on agroecology, STS, and social power