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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 259-265

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The Sinister Side of Agricultural Cooperation

Brian Q. Cannon

Victoria Saker Woeste. The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America, 1865-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. xviii + 369 pp. Illustrations, maps, figures, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Victoria Saker Woeste, the author of this impressive, multi-disciplinary study (which had its origins in her dissertation), is a research fellow at the American Bar Association. Woeste deftly interweaves legal history, economic history and agricultural history, addressing important themes in each field. The author's story involves agricultural cooperatives and their legal standing in the face of antitrust legislation and corporate law from the end of the Civil War to 1945, with particular attention to cooperation in the California raisin industry. Woeste highlights a crucial difference in the ways that lawmakers perceived cooperatives and their actual structure and behavior. While many legislators and judges retained a romantic view of yeomen farmers and therefore privileged their "cooperative" organizations over industrial trusts, the key marketing cooperative in the raisin industry "resorted to zealotry and violence to reinforce its economic combinations" and "became as ruthless as any industrial trust" (pp. 4, 235).

Woeste's book reflects thorough research in the files of government agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture as well as judicial records, newspapers and manuscript collections. Sun-Maid Raisin Growers offered her "open and unrestricted access to all extant records," enabling her to deeply probe the history of the raisin industry (p. xvi). But the author's findings regarding the degree to which Sun-Maid employees and stockholders resorted to violence and coercion in recruiting and retaining members of the cooperative embarrassed Sun-Maid executives. After she had completed her research, Woeste requested permission to publish some of the company's photographs and art, and the company laid down conditions that the author understandably found unacceptable. Subsequently, company president Barry Kriebel briefly related the corporation's views in the Fall 1994 issue of Audacity. In both positive and negative ways, [End Page 259] this roller-coaster relationship between Sun-Maid and the author influenced the author's work.

Woeste's choice of the California raisin industry as a case study makes historical sense, although it also possesses some liabilities. As Woeste points out, the raisin industry was "the most legally innovative" of any California farming cooperative and therefore deserves attention (p. 12). But the case study has certain limitations. The raisin industry was highly concentrated geographically, which enabled the Raisin Trust to control a much larger share of the market than most agricultural cooperatives, and it was frequently criticized by other cooperatives for its exceptionally dictatorial methods. Thus, while the raisin industry was historically influential and while its story is full of intrigue and drama, it was in many ways unusual.

This book focuses more heavily upon agriculture's relationship to the courts than have influential agricultural histories of this era by Paul Gates, Gilbert Fite, Fred Shannon, and John Schlebecker. In the process, the author demonstrates the rich possibilities of legal research for agricultural historians. Following in the tradition of J. Willard Hurst and the Wisconsin school of legal history while rejecting some of Hurst's democratic claims for the legal system, the author examines the attempts of individuals and pressure groups to use the law and the courts to achieve their commercial objectives.

In the history of agricultural cooperatives, the author's work, with her focus upon growers' organizations and the coercive activities of association members, resembles Tracy Campbell's The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars (1993)and Christopher Waldrep's Night Riders: Defending Community in the Black Patch, 1890-1915 (1992), both of which have focused upon tobacco growers' organizations in the South and their attempts to shape the social order and forge monopolistic marketing associations. Woeste's account also resonates with Hal Barron's findings in Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870...


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