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The Farmer’s Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America, 1865-1945

Author(s):Woeste, Victoria Saker
Reviewer(s):Rhode, Paul

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

Victoria Saker Woeste, The Farmer’s Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural

Cooperation in Industrial America, 1865-1945. Chapel Hill: University of

North Carolina Press, 1998. xviii + 369 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN:

0-8078-2421-6; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-4731-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Rhode, Department of Economics, University of

North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Many historical treatments of California agriculture consist mainly in

retelling old stories, peopled by stock characters familiar to the readers

of Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, and Cary McWilliams. It is refreshing to

see careful new scholarship such as Victoria Saker Woeste’s Farmer’s

Benevolent Trust, which focuses the evolution of cooperative marketing

arrangements in the Fresno raisin industry over the late nineteenth and

early twentieth centuries. Unlike the standard broad-bush approach, Woeste

concentrates on a single crop, produced in a relatively small geographic

area, which seems appropriate given the degree of diversity and

specialization prevalent in California agriculture. Moreover, she draws on

a new perspective, that of a legal historian, to chart the rise and fall of

the California Raisin Grower’s Association (1898-1904) and California

Associated Raisin Company (1912-23), and its immediate successor, Sun-Maid

(1923-to date).

“Wholesome” is the clear message that Sun-Maid’s trademark image–a

smiling, bonneted girl carrying a basket of sunny California’s bounty–is

meant to convene. But were Sun-Maid and other farmer coops really socially

beneficial organizations of small, independent producers trying to adapt to

the modern economy, as their advocates assert? Or were they merely attempts

at monopolization, hiding behind positive PR and preferential treatment

from the government? A “brotherhood of producers” or “robber barons in

disguise”? These conflicting interpretations of the coop movement are well

captured in the 1920 quote from California Associated Raisin Company’s

president, Wylie Giffen, that gives Woeste’s book its title: “Call us a

trust, if you want to, but we’re a benevolent one.”

Answering the ‘efficiency versus market power’ question regarding a given

business practice or organization form is often difficult. The story of the

raisin coops told in Farmer’s Benevolent Trust is highly nuanced, but

ultimately Woeste sides with the “robber baron” interpretation. She appears

to sympathize to the goals of the raisin growers, and agriculturists in

general, of gaining greater control over marketing and prices through

cooperation, but is strongly opposed to many of the means used to attain

these ends. Moreover, given the cooperative’s inability to control

production, she sees many of their efforts as bound to failure. Three

elements distinguish Woeste’s treatment from the more traditional accounts

of the farmer cooperative movement in the early twentieth century. First,

she provides highly detailed history of the evolving legal treatment of the

agricultural cooperatives at the state and national levels and clearly

shows that what the law said was often less important than what the lawyers

and politicians did. As one example, although the US Department of Justice

had grounds for pressing an anti-trust case against the of California

Associated Raisin Company almost from the coop’s birth, the Congress

regularly attached a rider to the department’s appropriations forbidding it

from using funds to prosecute farm organizations attempting “to obtain and

maintain a fair and reasonable price for their products.” Similarly, Woeste

shows that the impending passage of the Capper-Volstead Act allowed the of

California Associated Raisin Company to escape more serious consequences

from the Federal Trade Commission after the federal anti-trust authorities

decided they could not longer stay on the sidelines. A major contribution

of Woeste’s scholarship is to provide a much clearer picture of the

national legal environment in which the cooperative movement operated.

Second, the book gives great attention to diversity among the Fresno raisin

growers and packers, who are typically pictured as a cohesive, relatively

homogeneous community. Woeste brings to bear new evidence, drawn from ICPSR

data sets, on the structure and ethnic composition of production. And she

highlights the activities of Armenian immigrants who, despite suffering

discrimination by the local ‘white’ community, achieved considerable

success growing and packing raisins in the Fresno area. Thus, she

illustrates an interesting example where “ethnic capital” mattered.

Third and finally, Woeste sharply questions some of the means the raisin

cooperative’s members used to maintain control. In particular, the book

carefully documents the extensive use of coercion and mob violence by Sun

Maid supporters against holdouts, often Armenian growers, during the

membership campaigns of the early 1920s. (Woeste appears at times a little

surprised by the night-riding episodes, but if one thinks of the coop

membership campaigns like a union organizing drive, the threats of violence

do not appear so unexpected.)

Although such accounts of extra-legal pressure are not totally new, they

are not part of the sunny “official” line in the histories of agricultural

cooperation. And even today, these stories carry a punch. According to the

author, her journal publications about these incidents raised the hackles

of current Sun-Maid administrators, leading to them to attempt to control

her research and when unsuccessful, to adopt an uncooperative attitude

towards her work with their source materials.

There are a small number of subjects that I think could be handled better.

For example, Woeste contrasts the “success” of the California Associated

Raisin Company in the late-1910s and early-1920s with the failure of

Theodore Kearney’s California Raisin Grower’s Association at the

turn-of-the-century. She attributes the differences in performance in part

to legal and organizational changes and in part to Kearney’s combative and

authoritarian personality. I think too little attention is given to the

state of the market–the changing strength of international competition,

the growth of demand, and the effects, both intended and unintended, of the

19th amendment–in accounting for these differences. And I would have also

found useful a more detailed comparison of the performance of Sun Maid with

Sun Kist, the highly successful citrus producer’s coop.

I think reference to the recent work of agricultural economists and

economic historians (Lawrence Shepard, Gary Libecap and Elizabeth Hoffman)

analyzing farmer cooperatives, especially Sun Kist, would have improved

Woeste’s analysis. The view that coops acted like monopolists enjoying

anti-trust immunity and preferential tax treatment from the federal

government is not truly revisionist today. Finally, from the perspective of

an economist, the work contains a handful of the standard problems of

historical studies-numerous tables on market data that are not analyzed

using economic models, prices and returns which are not adjusted for

inflation, and vague statements about “overproduction.” But these are minor

quibbles that take nothing substantial away from the value of Woeste’s

contribution.

A recent examination of the University Press catalogues and conference

display tables reveals the arrival of a large new crop of books about

California’s agricultural history. One hopes they are all as insightful and

original as Woeste’s study.

Paul Rhode is author of “‘Horn of Plenty': The Globalization of

Mediterranean Horticulture and the Economic Development of Southern Europe,

1880-1930,” (with Jose Morilla-Critz and Alan Olmstead), Journal of

Economic History (June 1999) and “Learning, Capital Accumulation, and the

Transformation of California Agriculture,” Journal of Economic History

(December 1995).

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII