Stories of California farming history often start at the Gold Rush. Sometimes, they reach back in time to include the Mexican or Spanish eras. But very rarely do we hear about the ways indigenous Californians were tending the landscape to produce food for thousands of years before contact with colonizers. The story of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and their stewardship of the land along California’s Central Coast is a crucial part of the history of how humans have interacted with this landscape. What they and other native people across the state have historically done here was NOT farming, they tell me. And yet their stewardship practices literally laid the groundwork for the existing farming industry. It turns out that this story not only stretches the standard timeline of California history back by thousands of years, but it asks us to expand our very definition of agriculture. Which is why it feels like a critically important place to dig in.
Meet the New Cal Ag Roots Story Co-Producers!
In July, 2019, three new storytellers joined the Cal Ag Roots team in response to a spring call-out for stories from rural California. Hektor Calderon, Jennifer Martinez and Erika Ramirez-Mayoral are co-producing stories and will be adding their voices to our podcast stream at the end of the year. We received many response to our call for storytellers and these three new audio producers were selected because of their compelling story ideas. Be sure to subscribe to the show-- on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen-- to catch their stories.
Nina Ichikawa has many identities. She's the Interim Executive Director at the Berkeley Food Institute, a member of the Farmer Justice Collaborative, a fourth generation Japanese American, as well as a writer about Asian-American food histories. And she’s one of the most insightful thinkers about current issues in California food and farming. Tune in to this Cal Ag Roots episode to find out why Nina wants us all to be telling many more stories about California.
Antonio Roman Alcalá has a lot of ideas to share about power-building in the food movement. He’s an organizer, and a thinker, a theorizer and a farmer. Antonio strikes me as someone who manages to have his hands in the soil AND his eyes on the horizon at the same time. In our conversation at his kitchen table in his tiny Berkeley apartment, I got the impression that he’s often dreaming of possibilities for a collectively-owned, radically diversified farming future, but that he’s also deeply rooted in and actively drawing from history. Which is why, of course, I was excited to talk with him for this podcast.
This podcast is part of our series is called Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming. Tune in to these episodes to learn how food movement leaders’ understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work.
Antonio refers to a few Cal Ag Roots stories that you might want to listen to, if you haven't caught them yet. Those are Podcast 1: There's Nothing More Californian than Ketchup, Podcast 2: Can Land Belong to Those Who Work it? and Podcast 10: Política del Mole/ The Politics of Mole. Check those out wherever you get our podcast!
For centuries, people have been telling other people what to eat. The paleo diet fad might be new, but the idea that some people know what food is best, or healthiest, or cleanest and that other people need to be educated about that is definitely NOT new. It might be one of the oldest ideas we’ve explored on this show.
This is a Thanksgiving podcast, featuring three tasty audio pieces that celebrate family food traditions and workers who have given their lives to fill our tables. As we lay our tables with feasts this week and gather around them to count our blessings, I wanted to offer you all a bit of a treat. It’s been a long, hard fall for many. So, maybe now more than ever, it seems like people need to take a little care, enjoy a few tasty audio tidbits.
Tune in to this 4th episode in our Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley series to hear two student-produced audio pieces by Cindy Cervantes and Omar Gonzalez and a powerful performance by roots-blues musician and Central Valley native Lance Canales.
Thank you to Cindy Cervantes, Omar Gonzalez-- and to Lisa Morehouse and Mario Sifuentez who helped produce their pieces.If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one at www.agroots.org, or on iTunes if you subscribe to this podcast. And by the way, if you rate the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, it will help other people discover it. We couldn’t have produced this story without the generous support of the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.
Thank you! And Happy Thanksgiving!
(Photo Credit: Lillian Thaoxaochay)
Dr. Mario Sifuentez is an Associate Professor of History at UC Merced who's done a lot of thinking about the past and future of California's Central Valley. He's been involved with Cal Ag Roots since the very start of this project, both as an advisor and as an interviewee. (You can hear his voice on our third podcast, where he gives us real insight into the Bracero Program.) Mario has deep knowledge about the history of food production, and his current research digs up some interesting new stories about an activist group featured our Can Land Belong to Those Who Work It? podcast, which is why I wanted talk with him for this Digging Deep episode.
You'll hear that Mario is also a delight to talk with-- he's real and genuine and doesn't pull any punches. The Cal Ag Roots story we discuss is, admittedly, kind of obscure, and deals with some complicated federal laws about water subsidies and disputes over who should own farm land . But Mario is really clear on why people should know this story. He told me, "For corporations [farming Central Valley land] is part of their portfolio, right? They are not stewards of the land. And there’s no interest in protecting the land if it’s not profitable. They can let 20 thousand acres fallow, not because they think its good for the soil, but because of the market. When you have people who are stewards of the land, they are looking at it generationally. Thinking about it 100 years from now. Corporations just don’t have that kind of foresight."
This is the second episode in our new Cal Ag Roots podcast series--Digging Deep: Conversations with Food Movement Leaders about the History of Farming-- which will be released every other month. I’m talking with people who are working to shift farming right now, bringing California farming into the future. And we’re talking about how their understanding of the past, and how what they learn from Cal Ag Roots stories, has shifted their thinking about their work. Each of the conversations will draw on Cal Ag Roots stories, so if you haven't heard them all yet, take a listen on our Story Hub (or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher) !
Particularly relevant to today’s podcast is the last one we released—#2, Can Land Belong to Those Who Work it. We’ll keep on producing that style of podcasts and releasing them here—there are so, so many more histories to unearth. The two different kinds of podcasts are going to be in constant conversation with each other, so we're hoping that you’ll tune into both and that each episode will be more meaningful that way.
Big THANK YOU goes out to Dr. Mario Sifuentez, of course, for the wonderful interview, to Nangdo for the use of all the music in today's episode, and to Cal Ag Roots Funders including the 11th Hour Project and the Food and Farming Communications Fund.
"I always feel like the day that the Hmong strawberry stand opens in the spring it feels like a holiday to me. It’s as good as Christmas and the best thing about living in Merced."
Dawn Trook, producer of the radio play at the center of Podcast #7, told me there’s absolutely nothing sweeter than the strawberries grown by Hmong farmers in her home town, which is about an hour north of Fresno in California’s Central Valley. It turns out those strawberry stands that Dawn loves so much have a very unique place in the history of California’s Central Valley.
(Photos by Lilian Thaoxaochay of her family's farm in Fresno-- GT Florists & Herbs.)
Mai Nguyen is an innovative grain farmer and an influential farmer organizer. In this interview, the first in our new series of conversations with food movement leaders that we're calling "Digging Deep," Mai talks with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how examining our agricultural past is the only way to move into a just, healthy farming future.
As she puts it, "I, like other farmers, have perhaps 40 tries to grow my crops. That's not many, but we have more data points by looking back and looking around us. Scale isn't about one individual using their monoculture of the mind to manage vast acreage. Scale is time, human history, diversity -- the polyculture of many minds working lands in different ways throughout time and at the same time."
Recently, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services took the phrase “securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” out of its mission statement. The agency now focuses on “fairness, lawfulness, efficiency…and safeguarding the homeland.” In this political climate of xenophobia, fear and racist attempts to re-write American history, it is crucial that we tell, tell loudly, and tell often the stories of wave after wave of immigrants who shaped this country through every era of its existence.
California’s agricultural empire, the great Central Valley, is no exception. From the Chinese to the Japanese to the Filipinos to the Portuguese to the Armenians to the Sikhs to the Hmong, dozens of groups of people from all around the planet have dug their shovels and fingers into California dirt, planted seeds and cuttings with their machines and their hands, carved irrigation furrows and ditches with their tools and their sweat and tended craggy, sandy, cropland until it burst with bounty.
Cal Ag Roots Podcast #5: Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley shares stories about immigrant innovations in California farming that were told live at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. Tune in at the link above, or on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher to hear them.