'In the Struggle' Chronicles the Roots of California's Food Justice Movement | Civil Eats

‘In the Struggle’ Chronicles the Roots of California’s Food Justice Movement

From left: food justice and farmworker justice Ernesto Galarza, Janaki Jagannath, and Isao Fujimoto

California’s San Joaquin Valley is the most agriculturally productive region in the United States, yet it is also home to some of the highest levels of poverty, pollution, and hunger.

In this fertile region, government, industry, and agriculture have worked hand-in-hand over the last century to develop the modern agribusiness model. Unlike the homestead movement of the Midwest and Great Plains, California’s plantation-style agriculture was built on the monopolization of large Spanish land grants of the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries.

From there, a system of large, corporate-owned farms run on wage labor evolved. This model, established first in the Central Valley, helped set the stage for the midwestern Farm Crisis of the 1980s (massive foreclosures resulting in part from the consolidation of farms and over-production) and the current agricultural-related societal (unemployment, poverty, opioid addiction) and environmental problems (water pollution, pesticide toxicity) of the most productive agricultural states.

The consolidation of Central California farmland among a handful of powerful absentee landlords and the division between landowner and laborer did not happen without opposition. And in their book In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California, authors Daniel O’Connell and Scott J. Peters tell the linked narratives of eight scholar-activists who have opposed the forces of agribusiness on different fronts. They call their book—in parts, as gripping as any war narrative—“a defense of democracy.”

O’Connell is executive director of the Central Valley Partnership, a network of labor, environmental, and community groups in the San Joaquin Valley, and Peters is a professor in the global development department at Cornell University. Their book shows how each leader passed the baton to the next generation, inspired and advised them, and left a road map for the work remaining to be done.

Three chapters of the book revolve around the long-standing fight for a water rights system that prioritized small family farms over large operations. The National Reclamation Act of 1902, drafted under the Republican administration of Theodore Roosevelt, governed the allocation of water rights and reflected the populist values of the time. To encourage and safeguard the small family farm, it made water available at a low rate to farmers who lived on their farms, with land holdings under 160 acres (the same allocation allowed under the Homestead Act of 1862), and required larger acreage farms to pay full market price. It was intended, the authors write, “to enshrine in national policy a democratic standard that explicitly supports small, family-scale agriculture as a foundation for an equitable rural society.”

The only problem was that that law was never enforced, derailed at every turn by a government that had been bought off by agribusiness interests, and largely unhindered by a University of California land grant system too beholden to Big Ag money.

At the forefront of the fight to legislate enforcement of the Reclamation Act was U.C. Berkeley agricultural economist Paul Taylor, who, through a series of law journal articles, sought to build a foundation upon which activists could build their campaigns. When that didn’t work, he took to pounding the pavement, armed with his research, to organize and advocate. Though he did not succeed in getting the law enforced, rural sociologists Walter Goldschmidt and Dean MacCannell later picked up the fight. In the 1940s, Goldschmidt looked at two towns—Arvin and Dinuba—that were comparable in size, economic activity, and population, though Dinuba was mostly surrounded by small family farms, while Arvin was dominated by large-scale producers.

Both his study, and MacCannell’s redux in the 1970s, which involved more sophisticated statistical tools, demonstrated a clear correlation between large-scale producers and the predominance of wage labor, poor housing, poverty, and “slum conditions.” Both researchers also faced coordinated opposition from agribusiness. McCannell, in particular, faced attempted bribery, drink tampering, coercion, and even had a mole on his research team.

Among the most inspiring chapters are those devoted to Ernesto Galarza, Isao Fujimoto, and Janaki Jagannath. Galarza was a Mexican immigrant-turned-professor-turned-labor organizer who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. At U.C. Davis, Fujimoto (who arrived on campus in 1967 and continued to teach long after his retirement in 1994) gained near folk hero status for the way he inspired students, encouraged direct engagement in the field, and laid the groundwork for the organic and sustainable movement to come. Jagannath—who in 2014, still in her early 20s, led a community campaign for clean affordable water in the San Joaquin Valley and later earned a law degree to strengthen her work in agroecology and food justice—represents the future of the fight for food equity and food justice in the valley.

Civil Eats spoke with O’Connell and Peters recently about the book, the activist-scholars they describe, the strategies they employed, and the enormous pushback they encountered from Big Agriculture interests in the Central Valley.

Can you tell me how you both came to this project?

Daniel O’Connell: The book is a 30-year journey that began when I was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego. I worked for Greenpeace on direct action, then led civil disobedience actions through the Resource Center for Non-Violence. I was with the Peace Corps in Namibia but came home a little frustrated. My activism, given the enormity of global problems, wasn’t denting anything. I thought, “I’m going to focus on my home state.”

At U.C. Davis, [for graduate studies in the International Agricultural Development program] I met Isao [Fujimoto] and others who were really engaged, and I learned about the Goldschmidt study. I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on it, but I knew there were scholars who had tried but failed to write about it at U.C. Berkeley—the political environment of the time was too inhospitable. Galarza, for example had been sued for a film, Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, which he helped produce.

I wanted [to conduct my research] at a land grant university, but not one in California, so I reached out to Scott Peters at Cornell. I knew I eventually wanted to fight this in the public sphere, and I needed to armor up before coming back to the Valley.

Scott Peters: I was delighted to get that email from Dan. In the global development department [at Cornell] we look for seasoned applicants with world experience who are interested in doing research tied to action in the world. I spent 10 years as a committed activist and organizer in Illinois working in sustainable agriculture, so Dan’s line of work and inquiry in many ways paralleled mine.

Your book focuses only on California and primarily the San Joaquin Valley. Why did you choose this narrow focus, and how applicable are these stories to other parts of the state, country, and world?

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O’Connell: It was the geography that created the activism, and some scholars were pulled into fights they didn’t necessarily look for. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most endemically and structurally racially oppressed areas in the U.S., similar to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia. Starting with Paul Taylor, scholars had the idea that they would just present factual, scientific data and that would alter policy. But they underestimated the degree of corruption in the university and in society as a whole. So early on, they were pulled into the fight.

Peters: The focal point of book is the struggle against the negative effects of concentrated wealth and power that just happen to play out in the Central Valley in land, water, and the food system. But the same dynamic is happening all over the world. I’m confident that the lessons in this book can inform activism and scholarship in the Sun Belt, the Midwest, and in India—places where industrial agribusiness is now in its full ascendancy.

Walter Goldschmidt and Dean MacCannell’s studies on the correlation between large-scale farming and community quality of life form the backbone of the book. Can you describe why these two studies are so foundational and how they informed and inspired the work of the other activist-scholars you write about?

O’Connell: Embedded in the 1902 law is the premise that we need an equitable economy if you’re going to have a democracy. Goldschmidt’s study empirically demonstrated this idea. Even more telling, after his Arvin-Dinuba case study was published, it was immediately censored and a follow-up study was suppressed. So in the 1940s, we get a sign of what is to come.

By 1953, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and the Farm Security Administration [formed to aid small farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant workers] have been dismantled, and the entire apparatus is up in flames. Imagine, in 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Paul Taylor’s Yale Law Journal articles, voted 9-0 to uphold the Reclamation Act, yet even this mandate is not implemented.

Instead, only a year later, California passes the State Water Project, which even more explicitly subsidized the most concentrated, industrialized farms in California. It’s Chinatown on steroids.

And the same thing happens to Dean MacCannell when he is teaching at UC Davis in late ‘70s and early ‘80s and repeating Goldschmidt’s Arvin-Dinuba findings; he’s attacked even more viciously.

O’Connell: Yes, imagine a major grower in the Central Valley offering to fly MacCannell down to the valley to answer questions about his controversial study, and the chancellor of the university telling MacCannell, “Under no circumstances get into that plane. They would think nothing of wasting a plane and a pilot on you.” And meanwhile, you’re getting calls 24 hours a day from people trying to get at you.

Ernesto Galarza’s story is especially riveting and is really a model for engaged scholarship. He not only exposed the government’s role in subsidizing massive water use by agribusiness but also turned a light on the bracero system of indentured labor, on what are essentially latter-day plantations. He described himself as an “intellectual migrant” unwilling to settle in the “cemetery” of academia.

O’Connell: I tell young students of color, “You don’t have to read the whole book. Start with Galarza. Listen to what he told U.C. Berkeley Chicano graduate students in 1977: “If you stay in an institution . . . you become institutionalized.” He told them to get all that they could from an institution—all the techniques, all the skills—and then come back to the community and fight. I want to see that kind of ferocious, tenacious activism.

You also have a special fondness for Isao Fujimoto, who arrived at U.C. Davis in the late ‘60s, gave students the tools to go into the communities to do research, and helped spearhead local movements to lay down bicycle paths and start farmers’ markets. He was beloved by students but worked so hard to save the university during a time of political upheaval that he didn’t finish his PhD dissertation until 2008. And he wrote it while facing pressure and hostility from within the university and having to fight to get tenure.

O’Connell: His emphasis was on real-world experience, and he arrived at a time when the university was experiencing extraordinary pressure by powerful political and economic forces. Although he confronted harassment and injustices himself, he was full of joy. The pitcher may have thrown his third strike but Isao would tell you to run, because the catcher might drop the ball.

Now, we look back and realize how incredibly courageous he was; he was being discriminated against, facing a frontal assault over tenure and cultural slights—being told that people of color were not welcome.

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Peters: He is an innovator. At a moment of crisis at the University of California, when students are not attending classes and demanding relevance, he delivers relevance by designing a course that examined the biases and revolutions happening in agriculture. He built it from 18 students the first year to 118 the second, and 325 the third year, eventually helping to build a new department, Applied Behavioral Science, out of what was once the Agricultural Education department.

At an institution where rewards are skewed toward publication and research, they didn’t see that Isao is a great teacher. What was troubling to the university was not just having students and scholars go off campus to do research, service, and volunteerism; it was students and faculty joining movements to make change. That was difficult for them to handle.

Janaki Jagannath is the subject of the final chapter to the book. Can you talk about her and what young people can take and learn from her path? How is she different from the scholar-activists who have come before?

O’Connell: Janaki represents a new generation of scholar-activists. The chapter on her is filled with lessons for young organizers today, including how to work with white counterculture allies while maintaining roots in BIPOC communities. She actively incorporates intersectionality into her organizing by seamlessly bridging the complex interplay of race, gender, and class.

Peters: Janaki is part of a movement underway led by young folks from communities that have been excluded and racialized. She talks in the chapter about the need to cultivate diversity, which is central to agroecology.

Another thing that’s important not to miss—and I locate this most deeply with Isao—is that the way you keep any sense of hope is to remember that this work is an avenue for joy and satisfaction. When you are alive to learning from experience, through actions and struggle that involve human connection and solidarity, there’s a great joyfulness and spirit.

Janaki and the young people I come into contact with at Cornell are looking for ways to find meaningful life work, and the emerging food sovereignty and food justice movements are deep and strong.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer and editor who covers agroecology, food, sake, and Japanese arts and culture. She has been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Toronto Globe and Mail, NPR’s The Salt, and TheAtlantic.com, among other publications. She is the co-author of Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake: Rice, Water, Earth, and blogs on that topic here. Read more >

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