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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 613-614
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The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California
The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. By Steven Stoll. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xix+273; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $35.
By around 1940, when Steven Stoll's richly detailed and compelling book concludes, California's position as the globe's plant-commodity juggernaut was almost fully realized. So was the heartless image of California's agribusiness leadership; news of thuggish repression of migrant harvesters had become the world's currency, and Carey McWilliams's lawyerly expose, Factories in the Fields, and John Steinbeck's bitter novel The Grapes of Wrath (both published in 1939) compounded the damage. Here were the inevitable results of California's "natural advantage"--its Mediterranean, desert, and mountain-slope subclimates; its subsidized irrigation; its efficient railway and shipping system; its clever and aggressive university and corporate scientists; and especially its ingenious class of agricultural entrepreneurs, many of them newcomers who seemed to shuck off agrarian sentimentalism as they crossed into the Golden State.
No American place could escape entirely the aura of Jeffersonian dreams: the family farm worked entirely by family, a mixed-crop enterprise that sustained a way of life as well as yielded cash income and, writ large, strong, democratic rural communities of self-reliant, independent folk. The Middle West supplied so many new Californians, after all, and many migrants' California dream attached itself to the tiny, irrigated fruit-tree farm or vineyard, a refuge from winter's blasts but "midwestern" nonetheless. Stoll's spokesman for persistent agrarian sentimentalism and conservation is the Michigan-born Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell agronomist and chair of Theodore Roosevelt's Country Life Commission. But in California Bailey's cause was lost early. The intellectual and symbolic victor, instead, was Stoll's antisentimentalist, the relentless economist of intensive and industrialized production, Edwin G. Nourse. Nourse advocated growth without pause, monoculture, irrigation, mechanization, cheap labor, chemical pest control, and scientific management--all of which became canonical in California. His personal and ideological prevalence was ultimately rewarded at the new Brookings Institution during the 1940s, by consultantships with Averell Harriman and other notables, and with his appointment by Harry Truman to chair the Council of Economic Advisors.
Stoll's narrative of the industrialization of fruit production will be familiar, in broad outline, to readers already knowledgeable about other California commodities, such as cotton. Pioneer growers were attentive to published science--soil and geological surveys, hydrology and rainfall, microclimates. Unlike farmers in other regions, they organized themselves early into cooperatives, not only to advertise and market fruit to the disadvantage [End Page 613] of competing growers in the East and Florida but to achieve uniformly high quality standards. They were more attentive, too, to university agronomists, entomologists, and economists, and to experiment station bulletins. Nor did the fruit entrepreneurs hesitate to demand governmental sanction and enforcement of cooperatives' authority, product standards, and commercial chemical labeling and reliability. Finally, fruit producers organized to secure cheap supplies of migrant labor and to crush incipient workers' unions, first, notably, in 1914, then persistently through Stoll's chronology and beyond.
Stoll's fruit story differs in its own fascinating detail. Some of the fruit industry's largest owner-operators and innovators, for instance, were women. During the 1880s, the nascent lemon industry in southern California yielded probably the first dramatically successful demonstration of a pest-predator solution. Trees imported from Australia arrived infested with scale. Thousands of investor-growers were ruined. So they sent an entomologist to Melbourne. He returned in 1888 with swarms of lady bugs that, released on surviving trees, consumed the scale almost overnight. Still, growers feared that natural solutions to pest problems were unreliable, slow, perhaps insufficiently "scientific" (eastern suspicion of "book farming" seems unknown in California). University chemists meanwhile developed and promoted new arsenic-based compounds and timed sprayings. New pesticide corporations such as Chevron appeared, and Californians married themselves to poisons and the...