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Reviewed by:
  • Field Guide to California Agriculture by Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin
  • Ron Davidson (bio)
Field Guide to California Agriculture Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin University of California Press, 2010

Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin have written a lavishly informative, almost 500-page Field Guide to California Agriculture hoping to connect the state’s metropolites with its working agricultural landscapes. Their cause is noble, given the economic, culinary, and ecological importance of local agriculture to Californians and the fact that, indeed, the $37 billion agro-industry (in 2007) occupying a quarter of the state’s surface area absorbs all too little of a typical resident’s attention. Geographer James J. Parsons may find the Central Valley “the most interesting place in the world” (394), but that shows a refined intelligence indeed. For the ninety-four percent of Californians who live in urban areas, the Valley more likely seems the opposite, a plain of almost derangement-inducing monotony broken by pit stops at boisterous, air-conditioned caravanserai. Outside these havens, the Valley may seem rich in strange odors and windshield-spattering micro-life, but little of abiding interest.

The Field Guide seeks to turn things around. Travelers equipped with a copy on the dashboard may begin to see the Valley—along with the state’s other agricultural regions and landscapes—as a place worthy of “exploration and discovery” (xx). To encourage this about-face, the authors provide an informative text that is brisk, enthusiastic in tone, and entertaining to read. “Peppers have a justly earned fame for their varying hotness,” they note in typical style, “judged by Scoville heat units, which range from zero (for the bell pepper) to an exotic pepper from Assam, India, that clocked in at a million SHUs” (295).

To get things going, the Guide offers a seventy-page crash course on the background and context of California agriculture. Topics include climate, water issues, agricultural technologies, and economics. This introductory [End Page 179] material, along with a later chapter on agricultural regions, makes the Guide something of a stealth geography textbook. (The book is sprinkled with references to and encouragements to read Yi-Fu Tuan, John Fraser Hart, James Parsons, Paul Starrs, and other geographers). As a textbook, perhaps its most notable accomplishment is offering a geographic vision of California’s agricultural regions. This vision has the Bay Area as the state’s core, with Marin County and UC Berkeley at center stage. Citing the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which preserves dairies and other agricultural landscapes on the county’s west side, the authors note that Marin has had a widespread influence on consumer attitudes relating to “environmental quality, philosophy, and the conservation of agricultural resources” (373). UC Berkeley, near the Oakland terminus of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad and the Golden Gate—and hence at a national and world distribution hub for the state’s agricultural products—historically led the state in innovations in soil science, equipment design, plant breeding, labor management, innovative financing, and other components of the agro-industry. The Bay Area is also ground zero of “foodie” culture and a wine-tasting mecca.

By its nature, the Guide is celebratory rather than critical of its subject. It does not challenge the dominant paradigm of large-scale, fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture or the exploitation of agricultural laborers. On the contrary, the Guide was conceived to enhance appreciation of this among other working agricultural models. In addition, readers should be apprised that the text occasionally misreports information and, because of its breakneck pace, sometimes refers to material so fleetingly that it risks misrepresenting it. (The Salton Sea was not created by mistake “in the 1910s” [409], but in 1905–06; the Great Flood of 1862 was not caused solely by “weather,” as the authors imply [29], but also by erosion resulting from hydraulic mining operations in the Sierras. As for questionable representations, the authors cite Julie Guthman, a trenchant critic of how the state’s organic agricultural sector has mimicked its industrial twin, when noting almost triumphantly that “even the organic sector in California is industrializing and attaining a global reach” [13]; Donald Worster’s devastating...