Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California / Edition 1

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In an era of escalating food politics, many believe organic farming to be the agrarian answer.
In this first comprehensive study of organic farming in California, Julie Guthman casts doubt on the current wisdom about organic food and agriculture, at least as it has evolved in the Golden State. Refuting popular portrayals of organic agriculture as a small-scale family farm endeavor in opposition to "industrial" agriculture, Guthman explains how organic farming has replicated what it set out to oppose.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520240957
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 8/4/2004
  • Series: California Studies in Critical Human Geography Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Julie Guthman is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Read an Excerpt

Agrarian Dreams

The Paradox of Organic Farming in California
By Julie Guthman

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24094-4

Chapter One

Agrarian Dreams

Care about social justice issues? Labor and employment practices by agribusiness, health problems related to pesticides [applied] by farm labor, and the security of the small family farmer are related issues. If corporate farms continue their takeover of our food supply, then these businesses and their giant trading corporate partners can set the price of basic food commodities, dictate the wages and working conditions of farmworkers, and put family farms out of business through the consolidation of landholdings and economies of scale. Polluting farming practices and poor labor conditions are cheaper and are more likely to occur if corporations are allowed to continue taking over our food production. Preserving the family and small-scale farm that can employ alternative methods and that can produce food for local consumption ensures food safety and is more environmentally sound than industrialized farming methods, and the organic industry is made up of primarily small-sized producers. We have not fully addressed the issues of sustainability within the growing organic industry, but that question may become moot if these laws [the first set oforganic rules proposed by the USDA in 1997] are passed. Lower standards will allow for a greater takeover of organic farming by agribusiness and put the small producer out of work and off the land. Claire Cummings, commentator on food and farming on KPFA radio I feel that the motivation of the people growing this way coincides with my concerns about the health of the planet.... [Organic farmers] are motivated by belief, not profit margin. Patricia Unterman, food writer, San Francisco Examiner, 1998

The turn-of-the-millennium years have been nothing less than extraordinary in exposing the public health, environmental, and moral risks of industrialized agriculture. Each new round of news stories, whether about genetically engineered foods, mad cow disease, hoof-and-mouth disease, E. coli contamination, or pesticide poisoning, reinforces the idea that our system for growing and processing food has run amok. The surprising popularity of books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, and Marion Nestle's Food Politics, in addition to a wealth of titles focused on individual food commodities, speaks to heightened public interest in the production and consumption of food. It is becoming increasingly difficult not to think about what goes into our mouths.

In this era of escalating food politics, Claire Cummings has voiced what many believe: organic farming is the agrarian answer. Not only does it counter all of the objectionable by-products of industrial agriculture; it is also the clear antidote to corporate food provision, enabling the resuscitation of the small family farm. Echoing her sentiments, many writers such as Pollan, Schlosser, and others have concluded their books with accolades for organic farming, emphasizing its difference from industrial agriculture. Pollan suggests that organic farming "can't be reconciled to the logic of a corporate food chain" (2001a, 224); Schlosser waxes rhapsodic about an organic-cattle rancher who claims "nature is smart as hell" (2001a, 255). Meanwhile, many practitioners and loyal consumers link organic farming to a new agrarianism that will save the family farm. Some even talk about a "rural renaissance" in reference to the current vigor of direct marketing that supports farms of relatively small size.

This book casts doubt on the current wisdom about organic food and agriculture, at least as it has evolved in California. In an empirical sense, it refutes these popular portrayals. Many people presume that institutions within the organic sector operate according to a different logic than that of the agribusiness firms that drive the industrialization and globalization of food provision. This book shows that the organic sector itself is "industrializing" and "globalizing" at a rapid pace. It tells how organic farming rarely meets the ideal of "farming in nature's image" (Soule and Piper 1992). And it argues that the organic movement has fallen woefully short of addressing the social justice issues that are often assumed to be part and parcel of organic farming. However, it is not good enough-indeed it could be construed as highly irresponsible-simply to recount the ways in which organic farming does not live up to the discourses that support it. The main purpose of this book is to explain how organic farming has replicated what it set out to oppose. First, however, it is important to take stock of what organic agriculture was intended to be.

The Organic Critique

Unfortunately, the only serious critics of industrial farming per se [are] those who comprise what can be loosely called "the organic-farming movement."

Colin Duncan, The Centrality of Agriculture

At first glance, organic farming seems to represent a clear opposition to industrial agriculture, defined for the moment as that which is made more factorylike in order to be more productive and profitable. Organic farming ostensibly incorporates and builds upon complicated natural systems, in sharp contrast to the simplification and standardization that often characterize industrial agriculture (Ikerd 2001). Organic producers putatively embrace farm self-sufficiency and whole foods to the certain detriment of agribusiness, which commodifies inputs and processes that were once produced or carried out on the farm or in household kitchens (Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson 1987). The organic movement supposedly puts rural livelihoods first, suggesting an attention to the social justice issues that have been shunted to the side in the interest of farm productivity and "feeding the world."

In truth, it is impossible to divine a singular argument and meaning for organic agriculture. The unification of themes into an organic movement has not been without contradictions and exclusions, and many contemporary understandings of organic agriculture are not even complementary. Moreover, there has always been a tension between those who see organic agriculture as simply a more ecologically benign approach to farming and those who seek a radical alternative to a hegemonic food system. These unresolved tensions continue to surface in ongoing battles over the regulation of "organically grown food," and as this book will show, even the idea of regulation is contested. But even though the organic movement has never agreed on the extent to which its alternatives should be embedded in noncapitalist forms of production, it has gained coherence and momentum through the shared awareness that the undesirable aspects of mass food production are at least in part the result of profit-driven agricultural industrialization.

Most observers of the organic farming movement would also agree that its ideological compass derives from four broadly defined social movements: the various campaigns centered on alternative production technologies, the health and pure food crusades, the 1960s counterculture, and modern environmentalism. Also present in each of these movements-although not without controversy-were elements of a more radical interpretation of the industrialization critique. What follows is a brief sketch of how each of these movements has contributed to the industrialization critique.

Clearly the most influential critique, as far as organic farming goes, turns on the consequences of intensive agricultural production. Although interest in the relationship between agricultural practices and soil fertility goes at least as far back as the sixteenth century (Thirsk 1997), strong concern about the effects of modern agricultural practices materialized in the late nineteenth century, when "mining the soil" was associated with a worldwide glut in wheat production. An Englishman, Sir Albert Howard, considered by many to be the father of organic agriculture, was one of the first to articulate an alternative to agriculture as usual, on the basis of his work in India in the early part of the twentieth century. Over the course of his lifetime, he published several books describing composting techniques, touting the importance of humus and the reuse of agricultural wastes on the farm, and urging the elimination of chemical inputs because of their effects on soil fertility (see, e.g., Howard 1940). It was this work that inspired Lady Eve Balfour to found, in 1946, the Soil Association, the United Kingdom's first organic farming organization (Mergentime 1994). In some of Howard's writings he also made an explicit connection between the quest for profit and the degenerative aspects of modern agriculture (Peters 1979).

In the United States, a critique of productivity-focused agriculture emerged in the 1930s, a confluence of depressed agricultural prices and the ecological disaster of the dust bowl (Worster 1979). A "permanent agriculture" movement arose, calling for soil conservation measures such as terracing and cover cropping. Occasionally those in the permanent agriculture movement made the claim that the problem with conventional agricultural was its dependence on technology and science, which stressed the domination of nature for production and profit (Beeman 1995). In 1940, J.{ths}I. Rodale purchased an experimental organic farm in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, to test Howard's theories, as well as his own ideas about health and nutrition. Although Rodale steered clear of left-wing critiques of agriculture, the raison d'etre for his farm was to experiment with techniques that were clearly being shunned by the agricultural research establishment (Peters 1979).

Earlier food movements made a second major contribution to the industrialization critique. The original movement for the U.S. Pure Food Act began in the late nineteenth century to address both intentional and unintentional contamination of food. Its initial concern was food adulteration, a widespread phenomenon when processed food was first marketed in impersonal, extraregional markets and bulk-producing additives were introduced as a cost-reduction measure. The Pure Food Act established a system of regulation, although that system primarily benefited the major food manufacturers, who could most easily comply with the new bureaucratic standards (Levenstein 1988). It also unleashed a still-to-be-quieted concern that food safety could easily be compromised in the pursuit of profit and productivity. Moreover, the journalistic muckraking (such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle) that produced the necessary political momentum for the Pure Food Act suggested an important connection between poor working conditions and compromised food. Recent exposes, such as Nicols Fox's Spoiled (1997), Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001), and Pollan's article "Power Steer" in the New York Times Magazine (2002), continue in that vein, driving home the point that intensified methods of livestock production and handling are largely to blame for recent problems with bacterial contamination in food.

The connections between the organic farming movement and the health food movement are even more explicit, as both Belasco (1989) and Peters (1979) show. The most direct connection was first made by Rodale Press, publisher of both Prevention, a popular health-focused magazine, and the magazine Organic Gardening. Each promoted the messages of the other. But there was an important idiomatic association, as well, for organic connoted both "natural" and "whole," the two words most often used to suggest foods that have been minimally transformed by human manipulation. Starting in the 1830s with the whole wheat crusade, led by Sylvester Graham of graham cracker fame, health food advocates saw a unique value in whole, or less-processed, foods, suspecting that they offer important synergies, undiscovered life-enhancing properties (e.g., antioxidants), and protection from dangerous additives. Adelle Davis, a popular health food writer of the 1960s, lambasted the food processing industry for promoting foods that were nutritionally debilitated, the sort of critique that was furthered in the 1970s by groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Ralph Nader's "Raiders," and a rash of book publications that denounced the food system (Levenstein 1993). Since food processing is such an important source of profit in the American economy, this critique, too, had radical implications.

Utopian experiments and back-to-the-land movements provided a third major influence on the organic farming movement. As early as the 1930s, at least two rural experiments that combined nonchemical agriculture with communal living had emerged. One was associated with Ralph Borsodi; the other with Scott Nearing. Borsodi was avowedly antagonistic to capitalism and favored decentralized subsistence agriculture, not a reinvigoration of the one- or two-crop capitalist family farm (Beeman 1995). Nearing was a disaffected radical academic who through fifty years of "homesteading" with his partner, Helen, became an icon of the counterculture (Jacob 1997). Both served as models for a new back-to-the-land movement that started in the late 1960s.

By 1965, the so-called New Left-differentiated from the Old Left by interest in decentralized, utopian, and non-class-based forms of political action-was looking at alternative institutions as a way of modeling social change (Gottleib 1993). Between 1965 and 1970, disaffected urban radicals formed thirty-five hundred communes in the U.S. countryside, where small groups of individuals and families pooled their resources to create subsistence-style farms (Belasco 1989). Most of these communes practiced what were later codified as organic techniques, not necessarily by intention, but because self-sufficiency was a cornerstone of their ideology. Though their success was marginal at best-many of the failures were attributed to shortages of food-what was radical was the link between an alternative farming system and a collective form of ownership. Following the Nearings' path, there was also a significant migration to rural areas of individual families who sought a more private existence, mostly on privately owned land (Jacob 1997).

The urban component of food politics was equally critical, not only modeling alternative food-delivery institutions, but also forging direct links with the countryside. Food cooperatives, which involved direct employee ownership and management of retail stores or food businesses (many of which were bakeries), and so-called food conspiracies, in which members pooled money and bought weekly from nearby suppliers, became commonplace in many cities and college towns. Between 1969 and 1979, five thousand to ten thousand such institutions were established, grossing more than $500 million a year (Belasco 1989). Many linked up with nearby organic farms as sources of supply. In addition, many paid at least vague attention to issues of hunger and poverty, offering discount prices to low-income consumers, food-for-work programs, or even free handouts.

During this period, organic most clearly became understood as a critique. According to Belasco, organic and natural were used more or less interchangeably, although organic had "wider implications," since it addressed not only what happens during factory processing but also what occurs at the farm. Organic agriculture was envisioned as a system of small-scale local suppliers whose direct marketing, minimal processing, and alternative forms of ownership explicitly challenged the established food system. Thus, the "organic paradigm" straddled three countercurrents: "therapeutic self-enhancement, consumerist self-protection, and alternative production.... Organically raised food required a completely new system of food production and distribution, and with that, major social decentralization" (1989, 69). So, while the "counter-cuisine" incorporated several different themes-including survivalist (i.e., getting along on little), antimodernist (i.e., valorizing craft production), "health foodist," or explicit criticism of the food industry-organic agriculture was considered oppositional indeed.

The fourth movement to contribute substantially to the ideology of the organic farming movement is environmentalism, although not as directly as one might imagine. Rachel Carson's publication of Silent Spring in 1962 is considered by many to be the birth of the modern U.S. environmental movement, but it did not immediately awaken significant interest in organic agriculture. Carson put considerable distance between herself and the organic movement. For its part, the U.S. environmental movement was focused on the conservation of pristine nature at the expense of other environmental considerations and did not take seriously Carson's pronouncements of the dangers of pesticide use (Gottleib 1993).


Excerpted from Agrarian Dreams by Julie Guthman Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Agrarian dreams 1
2 Finding the way : roads to organic production 23
3 Organic farming : ideal practices and practical ideals 42
4 California dreaming : California's agro-industrial legacy 61
5 Organic sediment : a geography of organic production 89
6 Conventionalizing organic : from social movement to industry via regulation 110
7 Organic regulation ramified 141
8 The agrarian answer? 172
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