How State Science Favors Big Ag Over Small Farms (Part 3)

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

Part 3 with Christopher Henke, discussing his book Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: It's not just that you use Cooperative Extension as a case study of science, agriculture, and power, but that you provide some sharp detail on specific growers. In that vein, I liked your study of Spreckels quite a bit. The sugar beet grower. Could you speak to the basic arc of that case? What happens with Spreckel?

CH: The Spreckels case is actually one of my favorite parts of the book too. I was not trained as a historian (though I've been beaten up by a few!) [editor's note: no comment], but I realized as I researched and wrote this section that I really enjoy working on historical cases. I think this is in part because I have often secretly believed that I was meant to be a labor historian---I love reading labor history, and there is actually a great literature on the history of farm labor in California, including the classic works by John Steinbeck and Carey McWilliams, as well as by professional historians (Daniel's Bitter Harvest is especially excellent). All this leads into the Spreckels case, because it, like much of the history of farming in California, is wrapped up in questions and conflicts over farm labor. The Spreckels Sugar Company started out in Hawaii with cane sugar, but branched out into beet sugar production in California and other western states during the late nineteenth century. Beet sugar is made by processing sugar beets---kind of like a red beet, but bigger---in a sugar factory. Since you can't really do much with sugar beets except turn them into sugar, you might say that it was one of the first industrialized crops, meant for the factory and not the market.

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Western Beet Sugar Company factory, Watsonville, California, 1890s (from the catalog of the National Museum of American History)

In 1898, Spreckels opened what was, at the time, the world's largest beet sugar processing plant in the Salinas Valley, and planned to woo over many of the valley's growers to begin producing sugar beets for the factory. From the very start, however, Spreckels ran into a lot of problems getting enough beets to keep the factory running at full capacity. Some of the problems were due to disease, lack of available water, and competition from other crops in the valley (especially lettuce). But a lot of their beet supply problems came down to a lack of labor, which was especially true during World War II. The Spreckels case during the war years shows how they tried to deal with labor issues, including lobbying for the importation of Mexican workers for farm work as well as pushing for the mechanization of sugar beet production. Ultimately, the Spreckels case shows how difficult it is to transform existing structures of practice and power, even in times of great social change.

WF: What role has cooperative extension played in promoting farming practices that favor big agro-business over small farmers? (capital requirements, efficiencies of scale, regimens of control and order)

CH: From its inception, Cooperative Extension has been critiqued as being in the pocket of larger and wealthier growers, promoting policies that favored their interests and ultimately promoted the consolidation of agriculture into fewer and larger entities. There are certainly elements of this critique that are very fair, but one of the things I also try to do in the book is to show how this view is not always entirely accurate. Or at least, there are cases that are both less and even more sinister than the "in the pocket of agribusiness" view. But on the whole, I think that Cooperative Extension is structured by its very location in specific communities. This gives them great access to the kinds of hands-on stuff that local growers are doing, but it also makes them much more accountable to the interests and demands of local power networks.

WF: You're dealing with the University of California Cooperative Extension Service. Weren't they the ones responsible for the mechanical tomato harvester? What was that story about? Didn't go down so well, as I recall.

CH: Actually, the tomato harvester was not developed by Cooperative Extension, per se---agricultural engineers in the University of California, equipment manufacturers, and others developed the actual harvesting machine starting in the 1960s. But you also need to consider the plant breeders who developed the new varieties of tomato that could be picked green and withstand the trauma of machine harvesting. The idea was to take a relatively delicate crop and engineer all aspects of it, from the plant itself, to its cultivation, and its post-harvest handling, in order to make it a more fully industrialized crop. And this actually worked better than you are making it out here---lots of tomatoes are now machine-harvested, especially "processing tomatoes" that go into things like ketchup and salsa. The mechanization of the crop, however, was controversial at one time, partly because people didn't like the tomatoes, as well as because of protests over the potential job losses caused by mechanization. On this latter issue, the University of California was actually sued by a public interest group in the 1980s, which charged that the university had violated the mandates set out for the land-grant system in the Morrill and Hatch Acts. The suit was eventually dropped, but it did get some attention and made the university nervous. I should conclude by noting that none of this is in the book, so you've got an exclusive here.

WF: Excellent. That means I can tag this post as "news breaking."

CH: Good luck with that.

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | Pt. 4

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That should be sugar "beet," not "beat."

Great article, otherwise!

By Brad Bryant (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink