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Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875-1920

Author(s):Vaught, David
Reviewer(s):Odell, Kerry

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