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.
On a rainy night on March 21, 2018 in Merced, Cal Ag Roots friends and fans gathered to hear stories celebrating the people who skillfully criss-cross cultural borders dozens of times a day as they shape the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. Borderlands was a live story-telling event that challenged the common misunderstanding that the Central Valley is an agricultural wonder of the world because of a magical mixture of technology, capital and land. Taken together, the Borderlands performances, told an entirely different story. The stage lights of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center were trained that evening on people from communities who have come to the Valley from around the world with cultural, social and ecological farming knowledge that has helped to build the farming industry.
(Image by Janaki Jagannath, who created a colorful altar honoring farmworkers at the event.)
Picture your produce aisle: Strawberries. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Celery. Onions. These crops fill shopping carts across the country and a full third of them come from California. There was a time, though, when California fields grew mostly wheat. Huge tracts of the land we now know as the salad bowl of the world were then pumping out massive quantities of grain, not fruits or vegetables. In the early twentieth century California farming underwent a major transformation that created the abundance you can see in your produce-aisle today.
And one particular group of California farmers really laid the foundation for that transformation. We don’t often hear their names and many of their stories have been long-buried.
According to Isao Fujimoto, "The early success of the Japanese farmers led the Japanese to be productive farmers, but instead of being praised, they got attacked. And the attack came in the form of Alien Land Laws."
In a lot of ways, you could say Japanese immigrants started California’s produce industry. But racist immigration laws and policies tried to push them out of the rural landscape. A few influential farming families dug in, shaping the industry in powerful ways. Many others left farming as a way of preserving their families and moving forward with their lives.
As we’ll hear, the Japanese American story in California farming is about tremendous ingenuity that’s met with a pretty sinister backlash. And it’s about ugliness that’s met with some pretty powerful resistance.
And the story couldn't be more relevant right now. As Nikiko Masumoto puts it, "If we as a CA we, as a diverse, beautiful CA we, want to heal some of the wounds of the past, we have to look at what happened before and why has there been an exodus out of farming by some communities of color."
You might never look at your produce section in the same way again.
We've been hearing a lot of searingly anti-immigrant statements in the news lately. It’s hard to imagine, but Mexican immigrants who came to work in California’s farm fields weren’t always treated as criminals. In fact, Braceros were guestworkers sent to the US by the Mexican government during WWII as part of the war effort. They were young men, sent to save the crops left in the fields as American men enlisted. And they were seen at the time as heroes pitching in-- a forgotten part of the “greatest generation.”
Of course, as well-intentioned as the program might have been, things were never easy for immigrant workers here. This is the story of how the Bracero program became abusive over the course of decades, eventually crumbling under organizing pressure from farm workers. And it’s also the surprising story of what that farm worker movement missed in bringing down the Bracero program-- told here by people with personal connections to the work.
This story was produced in collaboration with Ignacio Ornelas, History PhD Candidate at UCSC and Archivist at Stanford University, Mario Sifuentez, Assistant Professor of History at UC Merced and Frank Bardacke, independent scholar. Special thanks to Ignacio Ornelas for sharing audio from his extensive oral histories with braceros. Aubrey White served as audio produced for this story.
Cal Ag Roots stories focus on pivotal moments in the development of California agriculture. This story and podcast are the first in a three-part series called Docks to Delta, which launched with a live event aboard the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015. Photos published here by permission of the photographer, Richard Steven Street.
Many thanks to Audio Producer Aubrey White and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, storytellers Bill Hoerger, Izzy Martin, Don Villarejo and Bill Friedland, and the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council including Lisa Morehouse, who provided crucial editorial advice for this project.
When you think of California cuisine, do you imagine baby lettuces doused in olive oil, and carefully arranged on white plates?
If you’ve ever driven down the Highway 99 corridor, which cuts through California’s Central Valley, you might have a different sense of the state’s contributions to global food culture. Driving 99 any hour of the day or night, from July through September, you’ll likely have to swerve around trucks mounded impossibly high with tomatoes. You’ll pass acres and acres of dense, low tomato plants being harvested by machines that spit them out into trailers bound for a string of processing facilities that dot the valley.
This year promises to be a record for processing tomatoes, with a projected 14.3 million tons harvested. California’s Central Valley will, yet again, play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply. On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with California cuisine. But, as it turns out, there’s an incredible tale that ties the two together in surprising ways.
Cal Ag Roots stories focus on pivotal moments in the development of California agriculture. This story and podcast are the second in a three-part series called Docks to Delta, which launched with a live event aboard the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015.
Many thanks to Audio Producer Aubrey White, storytellers Tom Willey, Mary Louise Frampton, Maia Ballis, Berge Bulbulian, Marc Lasher, John Heywood and to the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council including Lisa Morehouse, Janaki Jagganath and Mario Sifuentez who provided crucial editorial advice for this project. Thanks also to historian Clifford Welch, who provided critical background information about this story as well as connection to NLP members.
“That land is so rich you could eat it with a spoon!” exclaimed Tom Willey, small-scale organic farmer in California’s Central Valley, referring to the swath of land on the west side of the Valley that makes up the Westlands Water District.