JULIE GUTHMAN talks about strawberries, soil fumigants, pathogenic fungi, farmers, and scientists — a dynamic more-than-human assemblage that has remade California agriculture. Her rigorous and expansive study warns against the technoscientific fix, as well as the challenges of acknowledging that there is no easy way out.
Guthman is a geographer and social scientist who has written extensively about California farms. She is professor of Social Sciences at University of California Santa Cruz and a Guggenheim fellow.
Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry (UC Press, 2019)
Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, 2nd Edition (UC Press, 2014)
Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (UC Press, 2011)
Julie: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I’ve been researching and writing on food and agriculture for over two decades now. And I would say most of my work is about examining the conditions of possibility for food and agricultural transformation. This book and my first book on organics [Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, UC Press 2014], are very much grounded in California’s agrarian histories. So I’m also kind of very California-focused geographer.
Elaine: What brought you to California? The way you write about California, it’s a very passionate but also deep and substantive analysis of what happens in California landscapes. How did you get to do this work?
Julie: I’m a Californian! I’ve lived in California my entire life. I can’t say I’ve traveled to every corner of California, but I know the state extremely well. It’s interesting because after I completed my undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, I went on to be an organizer in California and I was doing a lot of organizing in California, Central Valley. So I really got to know that area and did some fundraising more around the Bay Area. But we also did campaigns in Santa Barbara County. And that was a new way of kind of knowing the state I had grown up in. And then when I went back to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. in Geography, I really did not imagine I would be working in California. I had an idea that I was going to be working in Nepal and I had a very different idea of a project before I arrived at UC Berkeley to get my Ph.D. But a lot of things happened including having a young baby and I had to refocus. And I took a seminar with my advisor on agrifood transformation. This was in the mid-90s and there was a whole slew of work coming out on the political economy of food and agriculture, kind of revisiting Kautskey’s classic agrarian question on how agriculture is not necessarily amenable to being capitalized, how capital moves in and around the farm. So this stuff was very formative for me. I ended up doing a dissertation on the organic sector in California, really based in agrarian political economy. And it was so interesting going back to some of the same areas in which I had organized. So I interviewed organic growers throughout the state and I divided it into something like nine different regions. And so I had a new way of knowing this. I do a lot of recreational travel in California and I feel like I know the state very well. And one of my, one of my committee members as a PhD student is also very much a California geographer. I was also very influenced by him.
It turns out there was a lot of different histories of those different regions. I mean they all, all these regions came into production at different times under different circumstances. They had different sorts of kind of land-holding structures, sometimes different labor relationships, certainly different crop specializations, which has been true of California agriculture. The different regions are very much divided by crop specializations. And so that was really significant for the way my dissertation and book on organics turned out because one of the things I found was that California’s agrarian histories have very much influenced the way that organic was playing out. And so organics in California had very different regional styles that reflected those longer histories.
Elaine: Let’s turn to your latest book. Your latest book is Wilted Pathogens, Chemicals and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry from UC Press just out in 2019. It begins with wilted strawberries in California farms, repair through fumigation with synthetic agrochemicals, particularly methyl bromide, the degraded soils, the broken bodies and the novel ecologies that emerge. It’s an expansive, impressive and extraordinary book. One of my favorite books. How did you come to write this book?
Julie: First of all, thank you for that, that was really kind and I appreciate it. Right now, I love the book too! The book started out with a very different set of questions. Really, since I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a professor, what I’ve mainly been following is alternative food movements, the ways in which folks are organizing and trying to change food systems. So I follow the foodies and their imaginations of new ways of producing and consuming and distributing food. And one of my critiques has been that the food movement has been too focused on building alternatives and not focused on undermining some of the worst practices of industrial agriculture.
Starting around 2010ish, there was a major regulatory battle over a chemical called methyl iodide. Methyl iodide was developed and licensed to replace methyl bromide in strawberry production and methyl bromide along with a third chemical called chloropicrin has long been used in strawberry production in California and other crops. These were really central to strawberries as a way to control weeds and nematodes and most importantly, soil-borne disease. The combination of chloropicrin and methyl bromide together allowed the strawberry industry to become so productive and grow and thrive and become the behemoth it is today. Methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting chemical. And a couple of years after the Montreal Protocol of ozone-depleting substances was agreed on as an international treaty in the late 1990s, methyl bromide was designated as something that was going to be banned or phased out. The U.S. government fought hard against that phaseout really on behalf of the strawberry industry because methyl bromide has been so crucial for the strawberry industry to control the pathogens and weeds and nematodes. But after a lot of stalling, the industry started to take seriously that methyl bromide was going to be taken away. Enter methyl iodide as this replacement chemical that has some of the same qualities of methyl bromide, but would not dissipate into the upper atmosphere like methyl bromide so it wouldn’t deplete the ozone. So it was introduced to replace methyl bromide, but there was a huge regulatory battle. And one of the reasons is because it doesn’t dissipate into the atmosphere. Any drift from the chemical would stay around and therefore affect farm workers and neighboring communities. So it was a big battle over the chemical. It’s a pretty toxic chemical. It’s even used to induce cancer in laboratory rats and it’s associated with thyroid disorders and miscarriages and all sorts of things. So I was really intrigued by this regulatory battle because for the first time I could remember that foodies, were aligning with environmental organizations and anti-pesticide regulations and public health people and farm workers to combat the chemical.
I first wrote a grant to research, conduct research on what the regulatory debate was around methyl iodide. Around the time I was keeping my eye on methyl iodide, I was also writing, doing some work with Becky Mansfield on epigenetics and the questions of intergenerational harm from environmental toxicants. So I was really curious to know if concern with the future of farm workers, their progeny, the possibility that their progeny might be affected by methyl iodide, I was curious to see if that had entered the regulatory debates. That was kind of one of the original research questions. It turns out that it wasn’t. I went on to do a research project about how growers were contending with the phase out of methyl bromide and about the regulatory debates after methyl iodide. And what happened is right after I had submitted a proposal to look at methyl iodide battles, it was actually taken off the market because of all the activism around it. So I had, I got partial funding, and then I had to kind of rejig my research question. So the project became about both the regulatory debate and what growers were going to do without methyl bromide.
So it was a very different project. It was a project about regulatory politics. It was about growers’ concerns about how they were going to function. In conducting that research, I just saw all these connectivities among different kind of elements of the strawberry production system. One of my peripheral research questions at the time of conducting this was, I wanted to pay attention to the qualities of the chemicals and if they were different and what that meant. But it really wasn’t only about the chemicals. It was about the plants. And the soil and the climate and so much else. And I started to see these strong connectivities among different pieces of the strawberry production system.
Elaine: In your book you talk about repair. Agricultural scientists were trying to repair the soil. Growers were trying to find solutions and fumigation was the answer. But in a way that cure became the problem and you call it, is it “iatrogenic”?
Julie: Iatrogenic harm, right. I think it’s important to think about fumigation in terms of the history of the strawberry industry. The strawberry industry was just kind of a—it wasn’t an industry, you know, strawberries were a specialty crop in California. There was some experimentation in strawberry farms in the late part of the 19th century, but by the early part of the 20th century, there starts to be more land devoted to strawberry production. Not a whole lot. It was hard to develop markets. The strawberries weren’t bred to last forever and ship far. But starting in the 1920s and 30s, strawberry growers started to see a lot of problems with blight and all sorts of diseases. They called them things like yellows and browns to describe the kind of symptoms but many of the plants were wilting and dying. And so they called on the University of California to help out, to figure out what was afflicting the strawberry fields and to help out with fixing them.
University of California jumped in. The Department of Plant Pathology at UC Berkeley became very active. First, they identified some of the diseases and one of the main ones was from the Verticillium family. Verticillium has many different subspecies and it’s widespread throughout the world. So they identified what it was and then they started giving farmers all sorts of advice about what to do, but none of it really worked. And then they started experimenting in the 1950s with using chemicals for below-ground fumigation and that’s how they hit upon chloropicrin. They actually hit upon chloropicrin first before methyl bromide as a way to control the diseases. Chloropicrin was expensive to produce at the time and then they found that methyl bromide really works by pushing –it’s highly gaseous, so it pushes the material through the soil. So together these things really worked.
So that was repair for the industry. The reason I focused on repair—and I’m drawing on the work of Christopher Henke—he makes this really important point that seems to be really true for the strawberry industry, is that university scientists really need to please their clientele. But the tools they can offer tend to be those that produce more productivity. And some of the problems that growers face are not problems with productivity. They’re problems with marketing because they have too much productivity. But university scientists aren’t particularly good at fixing those. I mean, growers still want productivity. I say, why do you want productivity when you’re always complaining about low prices? And it’s basically because if they don’t plant the highest producing strawberry, the guy down the road will.
Just to wrap up, the reason I’m using repair is to bring focus to the work of university scientists trying to aid the industry. That’s their job. And they want to please their clientele, but they could only work in certain areas. And then there’s the separate issue that university scientists are very, very narrowly disciplined. And sometimes these are really complex problems.
Elaine: Most analyses will leave it at that and say these are unintended consequences in the shift to agrochemicals. Strawberries being, you write the most agrochemical intensive industry, which was shocking…
Julie: Yeah, they are. Although what’s interesting is there’s an environmental working group that tracks the dirty dozen and strawberries are always at the top of the top of their dirty dozen. The dirty dozen measures pesticide residues and fumigants don’t cause residues cause fumigants are used pre-plant [so they don’t show up.] So they don’t even show up on that list. And they’re still at the top.
But I wanted to come back to the iatrogenic harm because I think that’s a really important point. To return to this issue of self-harm, fumigation became an easy fix for the strawberry industry. One important thing that fumigation allowed is for growers to plant strawberries on the same block year after year without having to rotate with other crops. So that itself made it highly productive. What I neglected to say is one of the things that the University of California started doing was breeding for disease resistance and that started happening in the 1940s with mild success. But once you started fumigating they couldn’t, they no longer had to worry about breeding for disease resistance. So they started breeding for all sorts of other qualities including shippability, firmness —at the time, frozen strawberries were really important because in the 50s and 60s, people were eating a lot of processed canned and frozen food and so they wanted strawberries that would freeze well and they were really breeding for productivity.
The point is that once you have fumigation, you can neglect the ecology of what was causing soil disease. One really important thing they bred for is longevity on the season. They had day-neutral varieties that would last throughout the summer. And then they have what are called short-day varieties that you can grow them in winter when the days are shorter. And so that really extended the strawberry season. So there’s somewhere in California, 10 or 11 months a year, there are strawberries growing because of breeding for this kind of way to extend seasons. So all these practices followed on fumigation, allowing neglect of the ecology of soil disease. And then what happens is methyl bromide is taken away, it’s phased out. Methyl iodide never gets allowed to be used. It was like okay to use for one year and hardly anybody adopted it. And so growers started using chloropicrin—sometimes only chloropicrin, sometimes chloropicrin with another chemical or other chemicals—and found it not to be as effective. And new pathogens started appearing in the field, particularly two. One is Fusarium oxysporum with a strawberry variant, which is the same genus as Panama disease. And then the other was Macrophomina phaseolina, which apparently is much harder to deal with than Fusarium. So these are new pathogens. They started appearing right when growers started phasing out their use of methyl bromide. And the industry has been ill-equipped to address these pathogens because they’ve relied so heavily on a very simple solution.
Elaine: You write about something you call a “strawberry assemblage” and “more-than-human assemblage,” and the book really introduces a whole cast of characters. You methodically go through this list. So there’s the fungus Verticillium dahliae. You have the strawberry plants and hybrid plant breeders, land and soil. You have cheap labor and bodies without rights. Then you have the growers, the shippers, the agricultural scientists, and you also have the public universities and particularly University of California. So you don’t just say: there are the multispecies relationships and there are the humans. You, in a very nuanced way, disentangle a whole web of relationships.
Can you tell us about some of these methods, how you went about unpacking this assemblage? It’s what I love about the book and I also read that whole list almost in the order that you write about them in the book. They’re all given particular kind of agency and a certain capacity that they gain because they encounter the others in that web. Everything is emerging; everything is dynamic. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at a really complex situation.
Julie: Thank you.
Elaine: How did you unpack this assemblage?
Julie: Yeah, I think my fantasies about what this book could do, were aspirational. I was taking very seriously work that you’ve been involved in and others, in symbiosis and relationality, in the work of Karen Barad, and not taking elements but looking at relationships. And I really wanted to look at relationships and I found that extremely difficult to actually write and talk about. And I had a hard time even getting beyond the language of elements or factors. So what I did do is I identified what I thought were some of the really important human and nonhuman actors and developed their histories and our knowledge of their histories and then showed how they’re related to each other. But I couldn’t find language to just talk about relationships. I had to talk about them as factors. So the book, the narrative arc is really around five threats to the strawberry industry, which are the pathogens; the nature of the breeding apparatus; the increased regulatory restrictions; land scarcity and cost, and disease in the soil; and then labor shortages. Those are the ones that growers complain about and those are the main threats, but then I try to weave in all these, the other kind of elements or factors that are intertwined with those and the book does try to build to show step-by-step how these things are really, really aggregated and entrenched as assemblage.
Elaine: You say a topographic approach isn’t enough and call for a topological approach. Do you find that—thinking about topologies—does that approach allow you to intervene on the one hand in current scientific and agricultural practices and on the other, make an intervention into the field of STS?
Julie: I draw on the work of Steve Hinchliffe and other geographers to make a fairly straightforward point. What they do is they argue against topographical approaches and they’re really talking about livestock practices. Their concern is that when we think of livestock diseases, we tend to think of an invader getting into a space. So that’s what they refer to as a topographical approach. And they call for the topological approach to suggest that the problem is not an invasive species, that the problem has been underneath the surface all along. But when you bring together all these elements and bring the intensities that go with industrial agriculture, the problem emerges from the intensity. And so I liked that a lot to think about the pathogens.
Now I did do some work trying to understand the origins of the three soil pathogens that are the main fungal characters in the book. And I was surprised by how little I found on their origins. And I looked pretty hard and I asked a lot of scientists, do you have much sense of the origins or do you have sense how they got here? And we know the Verticillium is widespread and I’m not in Santa Cruz right now, so I can’t point out the window and say that over there in those fields of hay, there’s probably lots of Verticillium. And Verticillium, you know, a lot of these pathogens only become a pathogen when they become a problem for agriculture. They’re fungi that exist everywhere and they only are a problem when you’re planting in a monoculture and, and they’re competing. So some of these fungi are pretty widespread anyway, and they’re around. So when do they become pathogenic? That’s a question I had. And I didn’t get very good answers. And that was significant to me because it suggests that we don’t even study these sorts of biota until they become a problem. And I did ask, I mean, how would you ever find out how old these pathogens are? And they said, well, you can do, you know, you can do genetic tracing, but no one’s even invested in that. But that becomes one of the arguments I make — we only care about them as material objects when they become a problem for plants that we’re growing for food and they only become an epistemic object when they become knowable that way.
Elaine: When they become some sort of threat is when we start to throw lots of resources into studying them. That’s one of the really generative things about thinking through assemblage: it allows you to see different species, different things not as essential beings having an essentialized characteristic but rather what happens once they encounter each other. And I love what you were talking about with intensities. So some sort of critical mass happens or there’s some tipping point. And then something becomes pathogenic.
Julie: Right. The assemblage is a way of characterizing all these elements together in these intense relationships.
Elaine: So you write also, as well as Marxist geographer David Harvey, that agriculture is different from other industries because it depends on bodies, depends on landscapes, cannot be theorized, cannot be understood, cannot be studied, cannot be undertaken without understanding this human/non-human, nature/culture together.
: It also makes thinking our way out of this agrochemical regime incredibly difficult. And you say, there’s no easy way out. You write: these landscapes are not all dead and we can’t only focus on either the ruination or the lively multi-species assemblages that come after ruination. There’s a lot at stake in figuring out what to do. There’s no off switch. So one question is, how to balance ecological damage and human livelihoods. But there’s another, I think maybe more critical question, which is, how can assemblage help us think beyond that binary?
Julie: To understand the strawberry industry’s predicament, we need to understand that there’s a lot of human and nonhuman actors at play and they’re tightly, they’re tightly related. It’s interesting because assemblage thinking has also been used to talk about the kind of contingency of groupings. That they’re so easily fallen apart. But while this particular strawberry assemblage is fragile, it’s not fleeting. Things are pretty locked into each other.
I would say that climate change is a minor actor in my book and it’s certainly not one that the strawberry industry has given a lot of focus on, but it became apparent that that was a part of this story in a couple of ways. One of the pathogens that has been strongly affecting the strawberry industry in the last two decades or decade and a half is Macrophomina phaseolina, which seems to do really well in conditions where the plant is stressed, including heat. And growers are, have been really struggling with Macrophomina infestation over the last few years. Now they attribute it to not being able to fumigate the way they want to, but it’s also because the last few years have been the hottest summers on record in California where they grow. Oh, another source of stress in the soil is salinization because strawberries are grown very close to the Pacific Coast. That’s a huge advantage of the industry. That’s the eternal spring of the Central Coast region or the South Central and Northern Central coast region where strawberries are grown, is brought by the Pacific Ocean. Any of you who have ever been to coastal California in the summer, recognize that fog rolls in every morning and it can be quite cool. We’re sitting in New Orleans right now and I’m kind of missing the natural air-conditioning of California! So I, I digress… These strawberry growing regions are also very close to the beaches and so there’s a lot of kind of saltwater intrusion and just overall salinization from aridity, particularly more in southern California. So that stresses the strawberries. So that’s a way in which global climate change may be impeding the industry. And that was significant to me because it’s not one of the things that the strawberry industry was talking about at as a threat.
I also turned to think about the Plantationocene because of work by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway and Eben Kirksey—who have different perspectives, so I don’t want to lump them together. They talk about the damage of monocultures in terms of ecologies and humans. I think there’s not a celebration of ruination, but a kind of sense of hope in ruination. A sense that the ruins—and I think you see this most in Eben Kirksey’s work— that after ruins, there’s possibilities of multi-species flourishing. And I felt that I had a somewhat different perspective in terms of the humans because when we think about plantations, sometimes it’s easy to think of it as not populated, but strawberries are extremely labor-intensive. So they’re very populated. And it’s work. There are a lot of livelihoods there. And that’s also how the strawberry industry defends its use of fumigants. There are a lot of livelihoods at stake there. And my sense of strawberry production is, if this industry goes to ruination and it’s fragile — that’s why that’s in the book title — what’s going to emerge in the strawberry fields is not multi-species flourishing. It’s going to be suburbs. I said that in a talk at UCLA and a friend of mine who’s a planner says you shouldn’t be disparaging housing! We need low-cost housing in California! And I don’t disparage it. But it’s just not this kind of post-dystopian quasi-utopian thing. This land is very, very valuable in terms of the world we live in now. And that’s one of several threats that the strawberry industry is facing: high land values because they’re competing with suburbs for real estate.
Elaine: There’s also this worry that the kind of life that emerges are maybe the kinds of life we don’t want. We don’t really want fungal pathogens. Or you know insects in the case of rice it’s brown planthopper and southeast Asian rice fields.
Julie: Or mosquitoes.
Elaine: Yes, exactly.
Elaine: Can you take us through the process of growing strawberries? What does it look like? What does sound like? What does it smell like?
Julie: Before any strawberries are planted, growers fumigate and that’s really one of the main objects of my study is, is fumigation. There’s several different ways in which they fumigate. They don’t do it themselves. A fumigation company does it. I’ve never witnessed a fumigation. I think it’s done at night and I think it’s done under very secretive conditions. So I can’t tell you what it looks and smells like. There’s this one wonderful photographer, Sam Hodgson, who’s done some great photos of fumigation. One of them is in my book. They basically cover the fumigation workers in all sorts of protective equipment and then drive a rig through the field that injects the chemical mix into the soil. Then they cover it with plastic. And then other workers often without protective gear go and shovel dirt on the plastic to hold it down. There’s another way of fumigation called bed fumigation where they first bed up the strawberries, so they make the beds or maybe four or five feet wide and, and there’s rows in between and then there’s maybe a foot off the ground so they bed it up, cover the beds in plastic and then inject the fumigant through the drip lines of the irrigation. I would say that that bed fumigation, which uses less of the chemical is also what’s been associated with novel pathogens appearing. So workers come and puncture those plastic things and insert the strawberry plant into the ground.
There’s this whole other very complex process of propagating the plants before they’re planted. That takes place in other regions in the state. It’s a four-year process just to propagate the plants and that’s it’s own crazy world.
Elaine: Do you mean it’s a four-year process of propagating the plant? That’s not the research leading up to —
Julie: No, it’s for propagating the plant because here’s the thing, strawberries are hybrid. All strawberries are hybrids of the original hybrid that made the modern strawberry. Those little seeds on the outside of a strawberry fruit are actually little pieces of fruit. Those seeds, if you planted them, the seeds are in that fruit. But if you planted them, they would, you don’t know what you would get. So you have to clone strawberry plants from existing plant material that’s already a certain cultivar and they have to do it through this process called a meristem process, which is taking a little teeny weeny bit of the plant in sterile conditions cause it has to be clean. Strawberry plants from California are shipped all over the world and they’re still using methyl bromide in the nurseries because it has to be clean. They take a little snippet of that plant and they grow it in a little planter that never touches the ground. And then they have to propagate the plant. After they grow out the meristem, they plant it and allow the plant to produce runners and they do that over three or four years in different regions of California. They do some of that in the Central Valley where it’s very hot in the summer. Or they do it up in the far north of California where it gets very cold in October. It gets very cold, like about 22 degrees at night. And then they freeze that plant and then they ship it to the southern part of the state and the plant wakes up and says, oh it’s spring, I’ll start going crazy. So it’s a very long complicated propagation process. Three or four years. That’s before fruit growers even get a hold of it and the nursery business is actually quite separate from the fruit-growing business.
Julie: And then I guess the other part of the strawberry production process that I would draw your attention to is the harvest. The harvest I visualize best because when you drive through strawberry region, it’s just so extraordinary. There’s not a lot of acres devoted to strawberries in California, but those great areas for strawberry production are just covered in strawberries. They are low-lying plants. They are very labor-intensive. And they don’t all ripen at the same time. So the workers are going back to the field several times over. But during harvest season, which is most of the year but not everywhere at the same time, there will be long lines of cars, workers’ cars, there’ll be a couple of trucks, and the strawberry harvesters are running through the fields. You see a lot of movement. They’re running through. They’re picking. If you get up close, they’re picking like this. I’m not, can’t do it on the microphone. They’re picking very quickly using both hands. A so-called “good worker” can pick one of those crates that we see, which has 12 baskets. They pick about, I believe nine in an hour, which is extraordinary. They run and then they get it checked off at a checking station and they run back and pick some more. They’re running because they’re paid on piece rates to ensure high productivity. Now not all of them are running anymore. Some growers, because they complain of labor shortages are using some innovation to try to make workers a little bit happier rather than paying a lot more. They pay them a little bit more, but they’re using trolleys. So they’re putting the crates on a trolley, but they’re moving extremely fast. And in terms of the sounds, you often hear Norteño music playing and I do have one little clip video where you can kinda hear that.
Elaine: So it’s not mechanized at all? So with rice it’s highly mechanized, big combine harvesters. It’s impossible to do that with the strawberries because of the fruit and it’s also very time sensitive or highly perishable? What’s their window?
Julie: Well, I think in the southern regions, they’ve got to pick them within a few days of ripeness. Some growers say we need as much productivity as we can. Some growers are like, this is insane and we’re complaining about labor shortages. Why would we want more productivity when we can’t find people to pick them? And then they rot.
Oh, I should also say another image of the strawberry field is that there’s a lot of strawberries in the rows. They’re squished. And the smell is intense. We might like the smell of strawberries, but it’s kind of like the sickly sweet smell because there’s just a lot. And there are a lot of them rotting in the fields. Because different shippers have different cull rates, they have to look good. if there’s rot on them. Some want particular sizes or particular shapes. So a lot of them are culled. Some shippers, I think, cull about 30% of their berries. So there’s all this sticky stuff in between the rows.
The only real mechanization is maybe the little trolleys that aren’t really mechanized but that you can pull them through rather than run. But one of the threats to the industry that growers complain about more than anything right now is labor shortages and labor costs. Labor shortages are always a social construction. But nonetheless, I believe that there’s no question that at the rates they’re willing to pay, they’re having problems with recruiting labor and the costs are higher because California’s minimum wage is going up to $15 per hour soon. Also, agriculture’s exemption from overtime laws has just been erased. So costs are real for growers. The labor costs. There’s a lot of talk and action on robotics. Driscoll’s is putting a lot of money into it. I mean a lot of people are putting research into robotics now. I was just interviewing strawberry growers this summer. Some are claiming they’re already using robotics. I’ve not seen any in the field, and some are saying it’s 15 years off before a robot will be able to replace a worker because a robot does have to be able to detect when it’s ripe, if it’s the right shape, which maybe robot can do. Yet the robot has to detect a lot of things.
Elaine: Are there racial divisions between the grower, the picker, the shipper?
Julie: Most harvest workers are from Latin America. They’re not all Latino. There are a lot of indigenous groups that pick strawberries. Who knows the real percentages, but we can imagine that most are undocumented or unauthorized — new term. The growers, it’s interesting. The growers were traditionally at the beginning of the industry, they were white and Japanese. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants came. They were very good truck farmers. They competed with white farmers and that was one of the impeti for the Alien Land Laws that Japanese growers weren’t able to own land. Sometimes, white growers would use Japanese families as sharecroppers at that time. Sometimes, they would lend them money, have them run their own farms or sometimes Japanese families when their children were born in the United States, they would somehow get to own farms. Of course during the internment, that all went away. But after the internment, Japanese growers, some came back into agriculture. So there’s still quite a few Japanese American growers, but most of the ones I’ve met are getting out of strawberries. They don’t have children that want to take on the business. I would guess based on extrapolating from my statistics, about 75% of growers are Latinx, which is different than it was before. And some are second or third generation Mexican-Americans and some just arrived and were former farm workers and there are really different rates of capitalization. One of the largest strawberry growers I know is Latinx, but there’s also some super low resource Latino growers as well.
Elaine: What do you mean by “low resource”?
Julie: I mean that they don’t have hardly any capital and the way they’re in business is the shippers are lending them money. Some number of them would go deeply in debt. Different shippers operate differently. There’s been quite a bit of consolidation in the shipping industry and there’s been a lot of growers that have gone out of business in the past few years. There’s about five main shippers. Driscoll’s is what your listeners will have heard of, and they’re the biggest. There’s also a Giant. Dole left the strawberry industry. There’s WellPickt, Naturipe Farms, and then some other ones that are more, more moderate or they don’t have brand names. They sell in, like in Costco or something like that. They have different arrangements, but Driscoll’s, as is most well known, does not grow any of their own strawberries. All Driscoll’s strawberries are grown on contract and are varying kinds of contracts. Like there are some that are called independent growers where they have a marketing contract with Driscoll, so they have to use Driscoll’s varieties or cultivars for which they pay a lot and they have to pay commission fees to Driscoll’s on sales and they have to buy all the Driscoll shipping material and some think this is great because they think that that gets them, it gets them more money because Driscoll’s has a reputation in the market for being better. And some find that they’re really squeezed by Driscoll’s practices. Driscoll’s is in a partnership with Reiter Affiliates. The Reiter and Driscoll family were original partners in the strawberry industry in California. So Reiter has operations where they have farm managers and so they work a lot of lands. So there’s different sorts of arrangements.
Elaine: At the end of your book you warn against chemicals and then you speak for organic union farms, one of them being Swanton in Santa Cruz. And then you say, and I laughed you, you say “go eat broccoli” as your last line. What I read from this is, chemical ecologies have to be addressed at multiple scales. There’s the global, the local and intimate personal levels. Can you talk about how following strawberries or fumigation, can you talk about how following that research object might have opened up other ways of thinking across scales?
Julie: Oh, I do want to say that I don’t really, I mean the Swanton Berry Farm is like the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think it’s a model for the strawberry industry. I like what they do. I like their strawberries, but I don’t think it’s, I think it’s the exception that proves the rule. I just want to be careful about that.
Julie: Well, I think one thing that’s important to think about, and I addressed this a little bit in my first book Agrarian Dreams on organics. I think there’s a way of seeing scale as a problem. I mean, there’s no question that the strawberry industry we have today and the supply of strawberries that we have in any grocery store year-round could not exist without the kind of scaling up of strawberry production that chemicals like the fumigants allowed. But I don’t particularly see small-scale as the antidote to that. For me, we should always be focusing on the processes that create the problem. And so if we could have farming that’s more integrative and less socially exploitive on medium or large scales, I’m all for it. I’ve never kind of valorized small-scale as a solution, but I mean the question is how you have integrative farms on medium or large scales. And I know actually there’s some agriculture investors that think they can do that and I’m curious to see how it goes. You know, I’m just not this kind of agroecological idealist. I would like to see a better way of producing food. There’s a lot of food production practices that I find repulsive and I don’t like them, but I want to see improvement rather than ideals, utopian ideals that may not pan out. So anything we can do to move growers in a better direction, I’m good, I like.
Elaine: I’m interested also in how strawberries, which are in a way a specialty crop and not a staple like rice or wheat… How strawberries actually come to rearrange, reconfigure all of these relationships starting in the 1920s. Is that right? Why strawberries? How did it come to dominate?
Julie: You know, there’s really been kind of three phases of strawberry production. At first it was a specialty crop. They had a hard time finding markets and then they kind of happened upon the fumigation and the breeding that really allowed them to expand. And they had this problem with constant gluts and that, but a lot of it was going into the freezers and then there was another kind of crash. And then starting in the 1980s, the strawberry industry picks up again and it really becomes what it is today. Again, strawberries, were a specialty crop. People would never expect to see them more than a few weeks in the market unless they’re buying them frozen in 1969 or whatever. But the strawberry industry, once it became so productive because of all the innovation, had to figure out how to market it. And so they worked hard on marketing those strawberries and worked hard on convincing the public that strawberries were really good for you, had phytooxidants, became every kid’s favorite. Now, when you walk into the grocery store and you walk into the produce section, strawberries are up front and central. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people when talking about this book, and they say, “Oh my kids love strawberries, I’m in New York and I know I shouldn’t, but I gotta buy strawberries cause that’s the only thing my kid will eat.” I hear that all the time. I mean, one thing some people asked me is why should we care about strawberries? Why do we even need strawberries? Is it important? And it kind of, it’s kind of not, you know. I mean on the one hand, nutritionists are telling us to eat more fruit and some vegetables and I think we ought to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I like fresh fruits and vegetables. And so for me, it’s not a matter of this crop is too nasty and we have to get rid of it. Because then, we’ll find others. I mean it’s very hard to find any crop produced on a mass basis that doesn’t have significant problems with the way it’s produced. This one just happens to be the tip of the iceberg. But anyways, the strawberry industry did do a lot of work to make it an everyday fruit.
Can I talk about the broccoli? The reason I end with “go eat your broccoli” is because one of the ways to grow strawberries without fumigation (and there are several on the table), is a more integrative method where you’re growing strawberries and then rotating with compost or other crops. And the Brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli and kale happened to work. And so those growers who are growing strawberries organically over the long run tend to grow a lot of broccoli. People don’t want to buy the broccoli. They want to buy the strawberries. Now that method, while it works ecologically is very, very difficult financially. I mean the growers that are doing it successfully grow in regional markets or they sell the farmers’ markets where consumers are willing to pay more, but on a mass basis, it’s not clear that people eat that much broccoli.
Elaine: I have a clarification question. How long is the growing time for strawberries?
Julie: Well, that’s one of the things that’s so interesting. I mean, it depends on the region because in the southern part of the state where they’re growing those short-day varieties, it’s maybe only a few months, but up in Pajaro Valley or Salinas, which are in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, they have the longest season and those strawberries will be in the ground and be producing for up to nine months. They have certain spikes over the season. But that’s one of the interesting things because growers in that region need the ground for longer than a year to produce like that. They need to get the last crop out, they need to till the soil, and then they need to fumigate and plant again. And so one of the things they do is they rotate with vegetable growers who can get a couple crops in a short season, like a 9-month season. Then the strawberry growers have it for the other 15 months.
Elaine: Is there competition from other countries to grow strawberries?
Julie: Well, Mexico is a big deal. When they were first learning of the plans to phase out methyl bromide, there was huge concern that Mexico would compete because Mexico had a later phase out date because developing countries didn’t have to phase out as quickly as so-called industrial developed countries. And that turned out not to pass. Mexico is producing, I mean there’s quite a bit of strawberry production in Mexico right now and a lot of it is run by California companies. And the season, most of the production doesn’t really compete with the California season because they do it in the dead of winter. But I do understand that they’re finding higher elevation areas where they can grow strawberries for a longer season in Mexico, which would compete. Spain is a major strawberry producer in Europe as is the Netherlands. I think they do it all in greenhouses. It’s very different. And strawberries just don’t ship that well that you’re going to send them across the seas. So Mexico is the biggest competition. Some growers complained bitterly and some say not a big deal. I think it depends where they’re growing.
Elaine: My last question is about possible futures, or “living-with.” So these are multilayered, very complex, very highly charged conversations. How do you engage your students, your kin, people around you? How do we remain hopeful, at the same time, how do we consider seriously that we live in an agrochemical and highly toxic system?
Julie: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s very hard. I just don’t like to come up with happy endings when the endings aren’t happy and right in this moment in history, where we are right now, I think that’s just a mega-message. I mean, we are not in a happy space right now, in a bunch of different ways. And to pretend otherwise is absurd. And strawberries, really in some ways, are the least of my worries with the impending fascism or the existing fascism. I mean, the damage we’re doing to humans and environments right now is beyond, it’s beyond belief. So, is this book a cautionary tale? For sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but those roads have already been traveled. Maybe what we can do is just try to do a little bit better, but I just don’t see any kind of utopian way out of here.
Living-with is one possibility and one that I think some growers themselves entertain. And obviously they’re able to do that better when they’re growing integrated systems or when they have economic cushion to do so, when they don’t worry about losing part of a crop or all of a crop, which some often do.
I play with living-with at one part of the book, in part because of my dog who I got as a puppy when doing this research and who became afflicted with Giardia and it was a total pain to try to, I’m going to spare your listeners the scatological details, but one could only imagine, but we tried a whole lot of different treatments for her, some as severe as a fumigant. We used the highly intense metronidazole, which is brand name Flagyl used to cure some infections and it didn’t really work with her and we tried several different treatments and the vet kept saying increase it and we tried this other one that was a little less toxic. And then we tried this weird natural herb remedy. We got it at the herb store and we tried a bunch of different things and finally we went to a holistic vet and said, why don’t you just change her diet and see what happens? And we did. And she’s a healthy, robust, energetic dog, but I’m pretty sure she still has Giardia and we probably feed her twice as much as other dogs just to keep her because the Giardia kind of plays on the intestines. So, living-with turned out to be a solution for this one particular organism on this planet. It still just kind of blows my mind that we’re spending all this money and attention on this one particular organism on this planet who happens to live with us, who we adore. So it was an experiment, but is this a replicable one? Maybe, but I think we would need a kind of real change in economics, obviously to imagine growing food that way. Having said that, there’s a lot of overproduction of food, particularly the United States and so living-with could work in terms of getting growers prices back up. Consumers want to have their strawberries at a dollar basket in February. But there are other ways of thinking about it. I don’t think there’s just, there’s not an easy way out.
Elaine: Something that I love about your book is that it’s so methodical.
Julie: That’s my way of thinking. I’m pleased with the book because I was able to show the connections that I thought were going to be a real challenge to do, and show how they connect with each other although I couldn’t show it every single instance. You know, you have to have a narrative thread.
Elaine: It’s extraordinary. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for the conversation.
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