Agrarian Dreams: The paradox of organic
farming in California
University of California Press, 2004; ISBN 0-520-24095-2;
250 pp; $21.95
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
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 NewFarm.org.