Published by EH.NET (April 2001)
David Vaught. Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor,
1875-1920. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. x + 280 pp.
$38 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6221-3.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Kerry Odell, Department of Economics, Scripps College.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson formulated his notion of agriculture’s role in
larger society, a battle has been waged between the agrarians and the
capitalists over the intrinsic nature of American farmers. Is the farmer a
cultural steward? Jefferson thought so in the late eighteenth century. Or is
the farmer just another profit-maximizing businessman? Writers of the
mid-twentieth century, including Carey McWilliams and Paul Taylor, thought so.
In Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor,
1875-1920, David Vaught tries to hit a happy medium. Through a number of
case studies, he traces the changing nature of California horticulturalists
from the late 1880s to the beginning of the agricultural depression of the
1920s and suggests that the label of “factories in the fields” was only a
generalization (and a pejorative one, at that). Instead, Vaught claims that,
while California’s farmers thought of themselves as defenders of culture,
their need to turn a profit often forced them to take actions (particularly
regarding the agricultural labor force) that were inconsistent with cultural
norms of the time.
To make his case, Vaught focuses on four specialty crops grown in four
distinct regions of central California: raisins from Fresno, almonds from
Davisville (now Davis), orchard fruits from Newcastle (in the Sierra
foothills), and hops from Wheatland. For each, Vaught documents the prominent
farmers, the ethnic background of laborers, production details, and marketing
arrangements. He has amassed an enormous array of primary data, ranging from
diaries and advertisements to agricultural journals and government reports.
With more than sixty pages of endnotes and a fine bibliographic essay, this
alone represents a significant contribution. This very detail, however, limits
his scope and so, perhaps, the generality of his conclusions. While he
specifically omits staple crops such as wheat and cotton, I was left wondering
how citrus, wine grapes, and field crops (particularly lettuce) fit in to his
analysis of horticulture. It was in these latter fields, after all, that we
saw a good deal of labor unrest in the 1960s.
Based on his extensive readings, Vaught concludes that — at least in the eyes
of the growers and their communities — “the values and beliefs necessary to
nurture a healthy and prosperous orchard or vineyard . . . also provided a
prescription for a healthy and prosperous society. Their tremendous
accomplishments in developing California’s horticultural empire — esteemed by
their communities and outsiders alike — gave these growers a sense of
self-importance, self-confidence, and empowerment” (pp. 51-52). At the same
time, however, growers had to wrestle with a fundamentally anti-Jeffersonian
reality: “the ideal of the contented and prosperous specialty crop community
rested upon, by necessity, a poor and largely transient population [of
workers] that horticulture could not benefit for more than a few weeks each
year” (p. 68).
Vaught is at his best when describing grower-worker interactions. While it is
true that easily-exploitable groups (such as Chinese, Japanese, Sikh, and
Mexican immigrants) provided the most likely source of low-wage labor, it is
also the case that some growers developed long-lasting relationships with
their workers. But these relationships were still based on the market, not on
the spirit. In the years surrounding World War I, labor shortages and high
demand for agricultural goods prompted growers to call for relaxed
immigration laws. Off the farms, however, anti-immigrant sentiment was
pervasive and was couched in cultural terms. This is Jefferson on his
head: farmers were willing to overlook cultural norms (or biases) in order to
serve the market while the rest of the country, apparently, was not.
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most
vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their
country, and wedded to its liberty and its interests, by the most lasting
bonds.” That was Thomas Jefferson, writing in the late eighteenth century. In
Vaught’s book, California’s fruit and nut growers of a century later are
similarly described: “Their horticultural ideal was not only to advance
themselves materially, but also to promote economic and social progress in
their communities and throughout the state” (p. 14). And a quick perusal of
literature finds the culture-agriculture nexus still alive today in the
writings of Victor Davis Hanson and David Mas Masumoto. But when capitalism
trumps culture (as it did not only in labor relations but also in restrictive
marketing arrangements), it is difficult to argue that farmers were
fundamentally agrarian. Still, whether or not the horticultural ideal was (or
ever will be) achieved, David Vaught has done yeoman’s duty to uphold the
growers’ side in the debate.
Kerry Odell’s research focuses on regional financial markets. Among her
publications is “Metropolitan Development, Regional Financial Centers, and the
Founding of the Fed in the Lower South” (with David Weiman, Journal of
Economic History, 1998). At Scripps, she teaches an interdisciplinary
course titled The Myth and Reality of the American Farmer, 1800-2000.
|Subject(s):||Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|