Image showing the front cover of the CSUEB Magazine Banner FALL 2011 issue

FALL 2011

How green was the valley?

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By studying one farm town's past, historian Linda Ivey's gaining insight into today's food system.


In Watsonville, CSUEB historian unearths surprising finds about sustainable farming’s past with present day implications


Strolling through the Alameda Farmer’s Market on a summer morning, most shoppers’ eyes drift toward bounteous piles of juicy peaches, bins of husky sweet corn, and baskets of multicolored, oddly shaped squash. But historian Linda Ivey notices a small sign under one grower’s green canopy. 

“See Ortiz Farms over there?” she asks, pointing at a stand offering a tumble of fragrant red raspberries. “They’re from Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County. It’s one of the smallest counties in the state but one of the biggest agricultural producers.”

Ivey, assistant professor of history at Cal State East Bay, has spent much of her career studying Watsonville and its growers. By digging into one farming town’s past, she hopes to unearth knowledge about today’s food system and the choices made by the people working in it. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Watsonville’s historic and modern farmers share a long-term mindset, she says. “The farmers in Watsonville at the turn of the 20th century did what they did because they wanted their industry to survive,” Ivey explains. “They wanted to produce food for a growing nation. It was their version of sustainable farming.” She believes that organic growers in the area today have similar aspirations. 

She also believes that the food system supplied by those growers is on the mind of today’s consumers much more than it was just a few years ago. Urbanites have strong opinions on farming methods, particularly in the “foodie bubble” of the Bay Area. The shift has its roots in labor organizer Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and ecologist Rachel Carson’s bestselling book Silent Spring, which in the 1960s connected agricultural practices to human health. Today, popular interest in healthier food production is visible in the produce aisles of big-box retailers and on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, a primetime ABC reality show in which the English chef and restaurateur performs a healthy makeover on a public school cafeteria. “The TV show, and the fact that there’s organic food in Wal-Mart and Target, are great barometers that (the food system) is breaking into everyday discussion,” Ivey says. 

Defining Sustainability

But why has Ivey — who grew up in suburban New Jersey — focused her historian’s eye on a relatively small group of local farmers and the food system they support? “My overall goal of (investigating) this topic is to look at ‘How did we get here?’” she explains. The question is important, Ivey says, because our food system today is “neither healthful for the land nor healthful for our bodies.” 

The change wasn’t intentional or insidious — at least in Santa Cruz County — Ivey believes. By studying early 20th–century Watsonville — through oral histories, newspaper archives, and even agricultural journals — Ivey has concluded that the 160-year-old coastal town’s growers were more sustainability-minded than previously understood. Her research will appear in a future academic journal article, “Evolving Notions of Sustainable Agriculture.” 

The title alone is likely to raise eyebrows. “Sustainable is a tricky word, and I’ve gotten in trouble by using it,” she says. “People are very protective of the word, and they should be.” As Ivey uses it, sustainable means more than today’s buzzwords of organic, local, and seasonal. “Sustainability, for (the historic farmers I’ve studied), was about how they kept their land producing and their industry afloat,” she explains. “It wasn’t just economic sustainability, but also ecological sustainability. They saw their farming methods as a way of keeping things going.”

Some of those methods seem questionable today — overusing pesticides, ignoring the land’s contours, or growing identical crops year after year on the same plots — but at the time the farmers were taking the best advice available from agricultural researchers and government scientists. “They were applying technology to grow their industry, like people did in every other industry,” she explains. 

Ivey sees echoes of that change-the-world mindset in today’s local, organic food movement. “Now we’re in this new revolution, where we’re re-thinking the way we grow food,” she says. “Just like they were re-thinking it at the turn of the 20th century." She adds that not all organic 

farmers are driven solely by love of the earth. “For some growers, organics are a new way of marketing themselves” and getting higher prices for their crops, she says. “The early organic growers were very ecologically minded, but today I don’t know if organic farming is an ecological decision or an economic one.” 

Regardless of their motivations, Ivey sees common threads linking Watsonville’s farmers in previous generations with those today. “Rather than the chemically dependent grower being the opposite of the organic grower, I really think they’re cut of the same cloth,” she says. “They just have different information in front of them.” Furthermore, she thinks today’s organic growers aren’t making perfect choices any more than their forerunners did. “What we see as flawless decision-making is also going to have repercussions,” she says. What those repercussions will be is anybody’s guess, she admits. From her historian’s perspective, the point is that notions of sustainability evolve with technological, social, and economic conditions. 

Going Local

Ivey originally planned to study immigration history when she enrolled in graduate school at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Influenced by her mentor and advisor, environmental historian John McNeill, however, Ivey conceived a Ph.D. thesis combining several topics. “I was on the lookout for how immigration and the environment intersected, and I ended up in California because the cultural changes here are so dramatic,” Ivey explains.

California’s transition from indigenous to Spanish to Mexican to American rule in less than a century greatly altered the way its inhabitants produced food and related to the land. To study the change from subsistence family farming to a business model, Ivey traveled to Monterey, the 19th-century capital of Mexican-controlled California. Her attention eventually settled on the early decades of the 20th century, when the industrial revolution rippled through agriculture: Farmers stopped raising a mix of crops (with the intention of feeding their families and selling or trading the excess) and began raising single crops, often with the help of chemical sprays and automation.

Searching for primary sources to understand this period, Ivey hit paydirt at the Pajaro Valley Historical Association in Watsonville: dozens of oral histories, collected in the 1970s and 1980s, that captured second-generation farm owners talking about their lives and those of their parents. Ivey expected to find stories that fit the image of California agriculture put forth by crusading journalist Carey McWilliams in his 1939 bestseller Factories in the Field. McWilliams had presented California farm owners as wealthy and white, abusive of their laborers (often people of color), detached from the land, greedy, and shortsighted. 

“But when I looked locally at Watsonville, I realized its story is much more complex,” Ivey says. For example, she found many ethnic groups — including Japanese, Portuguese, Italians, and Slavonians (from present-day Croatia) — owning neighboring farms, running agriculture-related businesses, sharing information, and generally supporting one another. “These were the good guys,” Ivey concluded. “They weren’t greedy or aggressive. They were just trying to stay in business. And a lot of organic growers today are the same guys, trying to keep their families fed.” 

That’s not to say Watsonville in the early 20th century was a multiethnic utopia. There were clashes, sometimes violent. But the overarching point, Ivey says, is that the story of immigration and agriculture in Watsonville was more nuanced — and, in the end, more interesting — than any generalized image of California agriculture. The research had converted Ivey into a sort of historical locavore. “I had never thought much about local history,” she admits, “but I realized that when you look at local stories, that’s when you see the complexity.” 

Acknowledging that complexity makes Watsonville’s growers, and the choices they made, more understandable and relevant to Ivey and her students. “I’m an advocate for understanding how decisions were made in the past, rather than just saying people were greedy or racist or bigoted,” Ivey explains. “I don’t think you study history because you can learn lessons from the past. You can learn lessons about your present by understanding how decisions were made in the past.

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