Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power
Science and Industrial Agriculture in California
How agricultural scientists and growers in California have cooperated—and struggled—in shaping the state's multi-billion-dollar farm industry.
Just south of San Francisco lies California's Salinas Valley, the heart of a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry that dominates U. S. vegetable production. How did the sleepy valley described in the stories of John Steinbeck become the nation's “salad bowl”? In Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power, Christopher R. Henke explores the ways that science helped build the Salinas Valley and California's broader farm industry. Henke focuses on the case of University of California “farm advisors,” scientists stationed in counties throughout the state who have stepped forward to help growers deal with crises ranging from labor shortages to plagues of insects. These disruptions in what Henke terms industrial agriculture's “ecology of power” provide a window onto how agricultural scientists and growers have collaborated—and struggled—in shaping this industry. Through these interventions, Henke argues, science has served as a mechanism of repair for industrial agriculture. Basing his analysis on detailed ethnographic and historical research, Henke examines the history of state-sponsored farm advising—in particular, its roots in Progressive Era politics—and looks at both past and present practices by farm advisors in the Salinas Valley. He goes on to examine specific examples, including the resolution of a farm labor crisis during World War II at the Spreckels Sugar Company, the use of field trials for promoting new farming practices, and farm advisors' and growers' responses to environmental issues. Beyond this, Henke argues that the concept of repair is broadly applicable to other cases and that expertise can be deployed more generally to encourage change for the future of American agriculture.
Just when we thought that little more could possibly be written about science and California agriculture, Henke has provided a whole stream of important new insights. In particular, Henke's concept of 'repair' provides a new and extraordinarily fruitful way of examining the work of Farm Advisors (extension agents) in simultaneously maintaining and modifying the large-scale, high technology agriculture for which California is known. Furthermore, Henke shows the effectiveness and the limits of their work, both as it relates to the production of food and to the transformation of the environment. His work will likely spawn an entirely new line of social research on agriculture.
Lawrence Busch, University Distinguished Professor, Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards, and Department of Sociology, Michigan State University
Well worth the read, Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power covers terrain under-explored in science and technology studies: the intersection of science and agriculture. Christopher Henke's study of the University of California's Cooperative Extension provides an engaging portrait of the changing constraints and possibilities faced by growers and advisors seeking to (re)make their own practices and the face of California agriculture.
Daniel Lee Kleinman, Director, Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, University of Wisconsin—Madison