Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry

Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry

by Julie Guthman

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Strawberries are big business in California. They are the sixth‑highest‑grossing crop in the state, which produces 88 percent of the nation’s favorite berry. Yet the industry is often criticized for its backbreaking labor conditions and dependence on highly toxic soil fumigants used to control fungal pathogens and other soilborne pests.

In Wilted, Julie Guthman tells the story of how the strawberry industry came to rely on soil fumigants, and how that reliance reverberated throughout the rest of the fruit’s production system. The particular conditions of plants, soils, chemicals, climate, and laboring bodies that once made strawberry production so lucrative in the Golden State have now changed and become a set of related threats that jeopardize the future of the industry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520305281
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/20/2019
Series: Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics , #6
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 761,711
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Julie Guthman is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her previous books include Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California and Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.

Read an Excerpt


California Strawberry Assemblages

Effective soil fumigation has been the forerunner of dramatic changes in the California strawberry industry. Instead of growing the crop 4–6 years, it is now grown as an annual or biennial crop, and planting is timed for each variety to achieve high first-year yields. First-year berries are superior to those of later years in fruit size and quality, and are the most economical to harvest. Also, through the research of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Inc., a California corporation, it has become possible to grow a considerable acreage of the large-fruiting everbearing class of strawberries (the French remontant class). These exceptionally fruitful strawberries could not be grown on non-fumigated land because of extreme susceptibility to root diseases. Commercial breeding for Verticillium wilt resistance in strawberries has now been discontinued in California, and the breeding, thus, has been greatly simplified. Most importantly, soil fumigation has made lands available for strawberries which were previously avoided. These were the rich, fertile, alluvial lands with long crop histories.

Agricultural Scientists Stephen Wilhelm, Richard C. Storkan, and John M. Wilhelm, "Preplant Soil Fumigation with Methyl Bromide-Chloropicrin Mixtures for Control of Soil-Borne Diseases of Strawberries: A Summary of Fifteen Years of Development," 1974

The simplifications of industrial farming multiply beyond the original target species. The multispecies modifications create ever more monsters — exploding numbers of parasites, drug-resistant bacteria, and more virulent diseases — by disrupting and torqueing the species that sustain life. The ecological simplifications of the modern world — products of the abhorrence of monsters — have turned monstrosity back against us, conjuring new threats to livability.

Anthropologists Heather Swanson, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, and Elaine Gan, "Introduction: Bodies Tumbled into Bodies," 2017

IN 2015, I WAS INVITED TO SACRAMENTO, California's state capital, to discuss my research with the director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), Brian Leahy. Leahy is a former organic farmer who once presided over California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the premier organic farming organizations in the United States. Leahy was appointed director in 2012 by Democratic governor Jerry Brown following that tumultuous period when the previous DPR director, appointed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, had all but ignored California environmental laws and her own agency staff in registering the highly toxic soil fumigant methyl iodide for use. It was expected that Leahy would take a more balanced approach to pesticide regulation, using science to weigh growers' needs against increasing concerns about the human and environmental health effects of agrochemicals. Having held many leadership roles in agriculture, Leahy had a reputation for working collaboratively with environmental organizations, agricultural groups, trade associations, and local government officials.

I had just completed the interview phase of a project designed to understand how strawberry growers were faring with tighter regulations on soil fumigants. These regulatory changes included not only the international phaseout of methyl bromide and the abrupt withdrawal of methyl iodide from commercial use, but also tighter use restrictions on the remaining allowable chemicals. For fifty years growers had been using fumigants to control soilborne pests, most notably the fungal pathogen Verticillium dahliae, which can make plants wilt and die. At every regulatory juncture, the industry claimed that without these chemicals, it itself would wilt and die, and consumers would no longer see the luscious berries stacked on supermarket displays year-round. Director Leahy summoned me specifically to ask where strawberry growers now stood with soil fumigants. Just two years before, under his leadership, DPR had published an action plan for the development of practical and cost-effective ways to grow strawberries without soil fumigants. Along with laying out several lines of research for industry investment, the report suggested that fumigants were not long for this (California) world. So Leahy was genuinely curious to know whether strawberry growers were undigging their heels, as it were.

I told him that fumigation restrictions were just one of the concerns irking growers. They were also complaining, mightily, of labor shortages, drought, high land values, low crop prices, and ... bad press. "Yeah," he said, "the strawberry production system is insanely complicated." He was not the first or last to make such a comment. How can a crop, for many imagined as an inconsequential spring delight, garner so much adversity?

In many regions of the world, strawberries are a minor crop, available for a few short weeks in the late spring. But in California, specialty crops, grown for a national market, are big business. As early as the 1870s California farmers were abandoning wheat and barley production to produce oranges, stone fruit, and grapes — crops that were highly desirable if not always essential, according to the nutrition canons of the day. Dried, canned, or refrigerated, these crops were shipped in railway cars so consumers in colder climes could have a taste of summer year-round. Intensive vegetable production began some three decades later, when iceberg lettuce gained ascendance. Strawberries were late in taking their place among California's pantheon of specialty crops. But by 2017, they were the sixth most important crop in terms of sales. In that same year, California was growing 88 percent of the nation's strawberries, while Driscoll's, a California company albeit with operations elsewhere, was selling 29 percent of the world's. Only in recent years have other berries become economically important as well, as many of the major strawberry shippers have diversified into blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. But strawberries remain the undisputed leader in the field, even as they are reportedly the most challenging to grow.

California strawberries became big business because of the extraordinary gains in productivity that fumigation and other technologies propelled. With such productivity the strawberry industry needed equally robust markets and, thus, it needed consumers who would see strawberries as a near necessity. Luckily, changing ideas in nutrition came to its aid. Nutritionists rarely see eye to eye on anything these days, but one thing they do agree on is that fresh fruits and vegetables should be the cornerstone of diets. Among recommended fruits, berries rate as particularly virtuous. Not only are they not too sweet — a problem for the glucose-concerned crowd — they are supposedly chockfull of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Parents love them because their kids will eat them — one of the few fruits and vegetables that don't require too much cajoling. As it happens, much public knowledge of the health benefits of strawberries came as a result of the vigorous public-relations efforts of the California strawberry industry, whose gluts in production compelled attention to marketing. These efforts apparently paid off. Per capita consumption of fresh strawberries in the United States almost doubled between 1994 and 2014, and berries as a group became the number one produce category for US grocery retailers.

Despite these successes, the California strawberry industry is undoubtedly beleaguered. And it has had a lot of bad press. Take the report "California's Strawberry Industry Is Hooked on Dangerous Pesticides," published by the Center for Investigative Reporting in its Reveal News in 2014. In that report, reporters blasted the industry for its use of highly toxic soil fumigants and called out regulators for failing to adequately control them. Or consider that strawberries continue to rank first in the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen," the list of fresh fruits and vegetables tested to have the highest amounts of pesticide residues. This ranking does not even include soil fumigants, which are applied to the soil before plants go in the ground and therefore do not directly contact the fruit. With the highest pounds per acre of active ingredients applied, strawberry production entails the most intensive agrochemical regime of all California crops.

Pesticides are not the only arena in which the strawberry industry has been the object of journalists' derision. In 1995, Eric Schlosser, future author of the muckraking Fast Food Nation (2001), published an exposé in the Atlantic Monthly about the California industry. The piece condemned a sharecropping system in which farmworkers are enticed into becoming farmers, incurring mounds of debt along the way. Nor have labor pay and conditions escaped the eyes of the press. Beginning in 2015, Driscoll's became subject to a highly publicized boycott when strawberry workers on both sides of the US-Mexico border called for union negotiations to address the poor pay of strawberry workers at certain berry farms. Although Driscoll's wasn't the chief offender — and Driscoll's itself doesn't even have farming operations — the idea of the boycott was to pressure Driscoll's, as the largest berry shipper in the world, to exert leverage on its contract growers to recognize a union.

Denunciations of labor conditions and pesticide use have been standard fare for specialty crop industries — those that produce high-value fruits and vegetables. This is because the delicateness and perishability of many specialty crops require abundant, cheap labor at harvest time and chemical treatments to make the produce both affordable and attractive. But, unusually, the strawberry industry has received a spate of unflattering press about its plant breeding arrangements, too. This occurred when two University of California plant breeders announced their intentions to leave the university and join a private plant breeding company where they could make a lot more money. A series of lawsuits ensued, precipitating much bad faith among institutions that were once allied and accusations that at least some in the industry are driven by naked greed.

No wonder the strawberry industry has become so defensive — and elusive. Websites of industry organizations and shippers increasingly emphasize the industry's contributions to sustainability, grower and farmworker livelihoods, and economic stability in strawberry farming communities, while the ever-enlarging group of interested researchers and journalists find that actually talking to people in the industry is pretty challenging. It was no small matter for me as a researcher to get in the door to speak with growers and other industry representatives. Some of those who generously agreed to be interviewed did so based on the implied understanding that I would tell their side of the story. In certain respects that is what I am going to do in this book, although perhaps not always to their liking.

Wilted is not a muckraking account, and I'm not interested in shaming the strawberry industry just because. My goal, instead, is to show how the very features that once made strawberry production so lucrative in the Golden State now pose grave threats to that very industry. It is not only that chemical fumigation is under the gun because of its toxicity to humans. It is that the entire production system has been built on the presumption of fumigation, rendering it resistant to change — at the same time that several other once-advantageous conditions have evaporated, leaving a suite of problems that are all the more intractable because of their interconnections. Moreover, years of managing pests with chemical solutions amid dynamic environments has unleashed organisms that defy control. These heterogeneous and interactive threats make it nearly impossible to continue to produce what was once a luxury crop, available for a short time and at high prices, for the mass market. In that way, the solution of fumigation, once lauded for its efficacy and the "dramatic changes" it brought to the rest of the production system (as noted in the opening epigraph) has become the problem. Fumigation, I suggest, is the source of iatrogenic harm, referring to the problem of a cure causing illness.

The uncertain fate of the California strawberry industry certainly makes for a cautionary tale about industrial agriculture, referring to scaled-up, simplified monoculture accompanied by forms of exploited and often spatially transported labor. It also exemplifies more generally the frailties of the so-called plantationocene, a term coined with the "ocene" suffix to denote plantation agriculture's imbrications with human-induced planetary crisis. Scaled-up agriculture — with its dependence on environment-changing fossil fuels and pesticides, that is — has both contributed to the crisis of the so-called Anthropocene, but is also highly vulnerable to the pests, pathogens, and other environmental problems (for instance saltwater intrusions) that have come with climate change. But unlike some who have deployed the arguably apocalyptic language of the plantationocene in oddly optimistic terms, I'm less certain that ruination is an assured outcome, or sanguine that it presents a way forward. The social, economic, and environmental conditions in which strawberry plantations are embedded, not least of which are the high-octane real estate markets of California, are unlikely to create the space for more heterogeneous and de-scaled kinds of food production anytime soon.

Unfortunately, my conclusions are unlikely to satisfy either activists or the industry. Activists imagine an agro-ecological ideal that can be achieved with the right kind of experimentation. They imagine that the problem lies with the intransigence of farmers. I will show that it's the intransigence of the entire edifice that has been created through 150 years of strawberry growing in California. For their part, the industry sees a public out of touch with the realities of growing food that is affordable, appetizing, and widely available. The industry wants to stop being shamed and gain public acceptance of its practices. Those in the industry imagine that the problem lies with public misperceptions of the possible. Both parties, in other words, see the problem as one of opposing worldviews that need to be altered. While it cannot be denied that activists and growers see the challenges differently, neither party wants to admit how political-economic limits have interfaced with ecological dynamics to make sustainable and just strawberry production highly elusive except in rare and not readily replicable cases.


Wilted traces how California strawberry production, so ripe with possibility in the early years, became so challenging. Much hinges on the emergence of soil-based plant pathogens and the solution of chemical fumigation as a way to address them. Once widely adopted, fumigation reverberated throughout the rest of the production system — in plant breeding, land access, labor practices, marketing, and more — locking in a particular way of doing things, at the same time that the social and ecological conditions of strawberry production were themselves changing to make fumigation less effective. Elaborating this explanation requires attention to three different kinds of actors and, in two cases, their guiding rationales. The first is growers, whose embeddedness in political-economic dynamics typical of agro-industry has made fumigation seem to them a necessity; the second is agricultural scientists, whose role has been to support growers through practices of repair; and the third has been the multifarious nonhuman entities, materials, and forces that have collaborated with the industry at some moments and thwarted it at others. Together, these actors have formed what I will refer to as a more-than-human assemblage that has increasingly come up against the limits of repair. In discussing the scholarship that has brought attention to the roles of these three groups of actors as well as to the fragility of agricultural assemblages, I provide a methodological framework for understanding the fate of the strawberry industry in California.

Growers and Political-Economic Dynamics

Although romantics like to see farmers as pursuing the virtuous vocations of tending land and feeding people, modern growers are businesspeople, imbricated in the dynamics of capitalism. They grow food to make a profit, and therefore they worry about accessing capital and having crop yields and sales adequate to pay their debts, wages, and land rents. This mindset has been especially true in California. Early orange growers in California, for example, saw themselves as businesspeople, not "dirt farmers," and approached the work of fruit production with the same zeal as their corporate brethren, embracing industrialization at every turn. Today, as geographer Richard Walker has detailed, California agriculture has been saturated with capital through and through — capital, he writes, is the "invisible thread" "that weaves together all of the elements of the agribusiness system." It is hardly a stretch, therefore, to draw on capitalist exigencies to explain the strawberry industry's heavy reliance on chemical fumigants. Indeed, social scientists of agriculture have typically employed the tools of agrarian political economy precisely to explain how farmers meet numerous challenges in crop (and animal) production.


Excerpted from "Wilted"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Julie Guthman.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Prologue: The Battle against Methyl Iodide
1 • California Strawberry Assemblages
2 • Emergent Pathogens
3 • Curiously Bred Plants and Proprietary Institutions
4 • Chemical Solutions and Regulatory Pushback
5 • Soiled Advantages and Highly Valued Land
6 • Scarce Labor and Disposable Bodies
7 • Precarious Repairs and Growing Pathologies
8 • Imperfect Alternatives and Tenuous Futures
Conclusion: The Problem with the Solution


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