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  • Two Farming Cultures in the Sacramento Valley
  • Mike Madison (bio)

I started working on farms in the Sacramento Valley in the 1950's, harvesting tomatoes, raking up walnuts, and cutting apricots in the fruit-drying yards. Although I enjoyed the work, I wasn't thinking of becoming a farmer. Instead, I was aimed at the default occupation in our family: college professor. I went off to study at Harvard, and in the summers sought refuge from the barrage of five-syllable words by working in the Department of Vegetable Crops at UC Davis College of Agriculture. My academic career was brief. I sped past the usual milestones: PhD, post-doc, publications, grants, tenure, editorship of a journal, fellowship in learned societies, but increasingly I felt that I was on the wrong track. So at age thirty-one I resigned from my academic post to follow more tangible pursuits. This put me on a crooked path that eventually led me back to my roots: farming in the Sacramento Valley. I bought open land, I built a small house, I acquired an old tractor and a plow, and now I was ready to farm. But how?

Well, you put a seed in the ground, give it some water, and eighty days later you harvest a cucumber and sell it for twenty-five cents. I understood that part of it. But farming is one of the major intersections of nature and culture, and it has many dimensions: biological, technical, social, economic, moral, aesthetic, and not least of all, experiential. There was a lot to figure out. How would I relate to the gophers, squirrels, rabbits, and hares that would eat my crops and bite holes in my irrigation lines? How could I ensure that poor people would have access to the products of my farm? Would I fully resist the seductive chemical shortcuts of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides that make life easier but that constitute death by a thousand cuts to the soil ecosystem? How big would I allow my carbon footprint to be? [End Page 291]

As I studied these issues I came to understand that there are two farming systems in the Sacramento Valley: the artisanal and the industrial (there is also some irregular middle ground, which I am not including here). The artisanal and industrial differ in scale, technological complexity, and the price of the farm produce, as well as in more subtle ways to the extent that they can be thought of as constituting two different cultures, each regarding the other with disdain.

Implicit in the two farming cultures are two quite different views of nature. The industrial farmers distrust nature and follow the un-spoken premise, "kill everything except the crop." They invariably choose chemistry over biology, embracing a reductionist concept of plant nutrition and a metaphor of warfare for interaction with non-crop species. The artisanal farmers believe that biological complexity creates stability, less intervention is better, and a healthy ecosystem is a requisite of a well-run farm, a view that is borne out by the widely acknowledged superiority of artisanal produce.

Most artisanal farmers engage in direct sales, so their customers know them. When the farmer sells a tomato to a customer face-to-face, the transaction is both economic and social, and the competence and probity of the farmer are an element of the relationship. And so with the exchange of a tomato for a bit of money, forces of social cohesion and community solidarity are at work. In eighteenth-century villages, where all production was artisanal and all exchange of goods and labor face-to-face, daily life was flavored by this social and ethical dimension, enlivened by the many flaws and peculiarities to which humans are susceptible.

Unlike the person-to-person exchange of artisanal goods, the purchase of industrial goods is a person-to-object relationship. When you buy a can of tomatoes in the supermarket, the farmer, if there is one, is anonymous, hidden behind layers of corporate names. The marketers of industrial goods recognize this defect, and in response create the Betty Crockers and Uncle Bens and other fake persons in an attempt to simulate artisanal production. But the...


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pp. 291-296
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