REVIEW: Agrarian Dreams
Getting real
A geographer examines the ways in which organic farming is falling short of its ideals

Reviewed by Laura Sayre


Agrarian Dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California

Julie Guthman,
University of California Press, 2004; ISBN 0-520-24095-2; 250 pp; $21.95

purchase now

October 14, 2004: If you want to understand what's going on in organic agriculture today, gird yourself for a modicum of academese and read this book. Agrarian Dreams is the most comprehensive and thoughtful analysis to date of the many contradictory forces shaping what some call the organic 'industry', others the organic 'community'—the two terms, of course, reflecting two contrasting understandings of the role of organics vis-à-vis the larger food system.

Geographer Julie Guthman sets herself the task of "explain[ing] how organic farming has replicated what it set out to oppose" (3), and she does an admirable job, tracing the origins of the organic movement in the United States, reviewing the history of organic standards development at the local, state, and federal levels, and then considering how the growth of the organic sector has in some ways exceeded and in other ways failed to live up to that original vision. Her analysis is based on a survey of data on organic farmers and farming in California from 1994 to 1998, followed by lengthy interviews with 150 farmers, representing about 10 percent of the total number in the state at the time.

Guthman's central argument is that advocates and even many practitioners of organic farming confuse the reality of organic agriculture with what she calls the "organic imaginary." Readily familiar but easily misunderstood, this imaginary is a blend of agrarian nostalgia and organic critique, a belief that the forces of industrial agriculture can eventually be defeated by a multitude of small-scale, family-owned and –operated farms practicing low-input sustainable methods and making a decent living selling directly to their neighbors. This vision is all very well, Guthman concedes—she is not immune to it herself—but it has little to do with organic farming in practice, especially in California or other fruit and vegetable growing regions where reliance on family labor alone is almost impossible on a commercial scale, and it hopelessly muddies the discussion about what organic farming can and cannot achieve.

The book's most interesting sections are those which focus specifically on the history and practice of organic farming in California. Chapter 2 tracks the growth of organic farming through the 1980s and '90s, including the role of key figures, such as Pavich Family Farms, Earthbound Farms and Cal-Organic, as well as key legislative shifts, such as the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. In Chapter 3, Guthman uses data collected through her surveys and interviews to compare the scale, agronomic practices, labor patterns, marketing arrangements and beliefs of California's conventional, mixed (part organic, part conventional) and all-organic farms. Contrary to popular belief, she points out, the structure of the organic sector looks a lot like the structure of agriculture as a whole, with a large number of farms run as part-time or hobby operations—79 percent of the state's organic farms grossed less than $50,000 in 1997—and a very small number of farms capturing most of the market—just 2 percent of growers grossed more than $1 million in 1997, representing more than 50 percent of the total value of organic production.

In Chapter 4, Guthman places the rise of organics within the context of California's "agro-industrial legacy." "Innovation in capitalist agriculture has…taken three main forms," she argues: intensification, appropriation, and valorization (65). Intensification involves "efforts to speed up, enhance, or reduce the risks of biological processes," through the use of everything from improved varieties to coercive labor tactics (65). Appropriation is the business of grabbing value from other segments of the food chain—often, value is appropriated from farmers by other industries, like seed companies and equipment manufacturers. Valorization, finally, "is about seeking value through the realm of consumption. Here, innovation turns on finding new ways of enhancing the desire for the product itself as opposed to intensifying the creation of value or extracting value from others" (66). Valorization, of course, is the essential strategy of organics, now institutionalized through certification and regulated through the National Organic Program. In this sense, Guthman points out, it is little surprise that organics has become an extension rather than a subversion of capitalist agriculture.

Chapter 5, "Organic Sediment: A geography of organic production," is a fascinating mini-field guide to the organic farming regions of California, from the western Central Valley, where the typical organic farm is a third-generation family business with 10 percent of its 2000 acres in organic crops, growing processing tomatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic on specified contracts; to Solano and Yolo Counties, where experienced, first-generation farmers grow and sell a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and some animal products via CSAs and farmers' markets. (Guthman's other four key organic regions are the eastern Central Valley, the North Coast [Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa], the Central Coast [Santa Cruz, Monterey], and the Southwest [from L.A. to San Diego].) Organic farmers in each of these regions differ not just in the crops they grow, the number of acres they farm, or their gross sales figures but also in their land tenure patterns, labor practices, marketing arrangements, information sources, and motivations for moving to organics.

Chapters 6 and 7 review the history of organic standards development at the local, state, and federal levels and consider how the processes of certification and regulation have influenced agronomic and other farm management patterns. Guthman does an excellent job of illustrating how key moments in the evolution of organic standards have had wide-reaching impacts for the organic sector: how certification fee scales have placed midsized growers at a disadvantage; how California Certified Organic Farmers' agreement to certify land in Mexico opened the market to off-season produce; perhaps most significantly, how decisions about individual inputs, like sulfur and sodium nitrate, have facilitated organic production of specific crops, like grapes and salad mix.

Overall, your reaction to this book may depend on your position with regard to Californian exceptionalism. Is California an anomaly within U.S. or even global farming systems, or does it represent the leading edge of agricultural development, the many faces of the future? Some of what Guthman has to report—about high land values, labor management, or pesticide regulations—may seem distant from the central concerns of, say, wheat growers in North Dakota. Nevertheless, the significance of these issues for the organic sector as a whole should be abundantly clear. Voices within the organic sector nationwide have been debating the impact of 'big organics,' but Guthman contends that "the focus on the presence of 'big' players is off the mark. For the problem with agribusiness is its legacy of social and ecological exploitation rather than its scale of production per se" (61). Ultimately, the paradox of organic farming is not just that the organic premium is in danger of eroding as organic production spreads, but that at the same time, organic premiums may become capitalized into land values. When this happens, only the most intensive forms of land use remain viable.

So what is to be done? While making it clear that she personally supports organic farming, Guthman concludes that the creation of a federally regulated organic label has nullified the radical potential of organics. "So-called market mechanisms are favored in a neoliberal political climate precisely because they do not interfere with business as usual. To the contrary, they help create new markets. Juxtaposed to these private means are state-led reforms, hopelessly out of style these days. Yet, because of its redistributive capabilities, only the state has the capacity to unlock some of the mechanisms of agricultural intensification" (179). Banning the most dangerous conventional pesticides, raising farmworkers' wages, and expanding cooperative marketing would all help move agriculture—both organic and conventional—in a more truly sustainable direction. Whether you agree with her or not about the value of certification, there's no question that we still have a long way to go.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for