Understanding agriculture is crucial for understanding society. The invention of agriculture in the Neolithic age gave rise to the first civilizations and ever since the development of agricultural technologies has been closely linked with human progress determining the way of life. The history of the attempts to control the means of production in that industry is just as old as the industry itself. Although it has been playing an important role in the development of civilization and the improvement of life, the practice of food production is also associated with multiple challenges for society. This essay will discuss the history of vegetable farming in California in the context of technological progress in the world from the colonial era to the twenty-first century. The main goal of this paper is to study the development of agriculture in California and take a close look at the attempts made by the US government to control different aspects of that industry.
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The age of colonial empires brought about a significant change to the economy. It led to the situation when colonial powers produced finished manufactured goods, and their colonies provided resources and raw materials for the industry and the division of labor became international (Guptill et al. 354). The emergence of this new network and growing trade increased the interdependence of different regions of the world.
After it had won independence from the British Empire, the United States stepped on its way of industrial development that was different from most other nations. The situation in California in the second part of the nineteenth century can be characterized by increasing immigration. This process gave rise to the emergence of problems regarding ethnicity, language, and class among people of European, Asian, and Latin American origin (Garone 243). The American government made multiple attempts to control the flow of immigrants to the county and the degree of their involvement in work in the agricultural industry. It led to the creation of legal acts that influenced the situation in vegetable farming in California. The Chinese Exclusion Act is an example of such legislation. It was passed in 1882, and the main goal of that act was to limit the number of working-class Chinese people entering the country and the labor force (Alkon and Agyeman 66). Similar laws concerning Japanese citizens were passed in the following years (Alkon and Agyeman 72). These laws the situation in agriculture that allowed discrimination against workers of Asian origin.
The land is one of the main factors of production in agriculture. Several laws that aimed to control land ownership were created in the first part of the twentieth century. The Alien Laws passed from 1913 to 1927 barred immigrants from Japan from land ownership. In California, it made it possible to expropriate land from Japanese farmers, who by that time had been already established in the state as farm owners. (Alkon and Agyeman 70). Thus, the legislation of that time allowed to disposes of the right to own land-based on nationality.
The time of the Great Depression brought new challenges for people in agriculture. American farmworkers were not included in the National Labor Relations Act, which meant that they were not allowed to form labor unions. As a result, the exploitation of agricultural laborers continued (Gottlieb and Joshi 19). That time also saw a pick of the violent confrontation between growers and farmworkers in California (Gottlieb and Joshi 19). Thus, severe working conditions and the legal status of the people working in agriculture made the time of the Depression especially difficult for them.
New attempts to control the flow of immigrants were made in the 1940s in the face of World War II and continued after the war. The Bracero, also known as the Mexican Farm Labor Program was started in 1942. It was initiated to increase the number of workers and meet the need for manual labor during the war. The program brought hundreds of thousands of workers to agriculture, the majority of whom were involved in seasonal work in Southern California. The participants of the program primarily cultivated labor-intensive vegetables such as lettuce or tomato (Gottlieb and Joshi 19). In most cases, the Bracero and similar programs focused on the poorest counties with a significant number of people living below the line of poverty.
Immigrant workers had to work in bad conditions, and their legal status was often uncertain, and the living conditions were poor as well (Gottlieb and Joshi 19). Studies have shown evidence that a massive number of children from ethnic minority families were involved in physically damaging work in the fields (Gottlieb and Joshi 19). The regulations that aimed to provide the agricultural complex with cheap labor together with a lack of control over working conditions in the field created a difficult situation. Without proper protection of their rights, many immigrant workers were made easy targets for abuse and exploitation.
The use of chemicals in agriculture became a significant issue in the second part of the past century. Lack of regulation in that regard led to a spread of usage of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals without proper control. Such practices had severe environmental and demographic consequences (Gottlieb and Joshi 22). Many instances of contamination of the environment and exposure of workers to dangerous chemicals were widely discussed in public and media (Gottlieb and Joshi 23). In response to the growing crisis, the government took actions to take the production and usage of chemicals in farming under control. Many toxic pesticides that had been allowed for use were banned by the government agencies, but they did not fully solve the problem (Gottlieb and Joshi 23). Several accidents with poisonous chemicals took place in California after those measures were taken, and resulted in damage to the environment and public health. Moreover, evidence was found that usage of some of the chemicals that were still allowed hurt the health of the consumers (Gottlieb and Joshi 25). Thus, despite the attention of the government, the problem remained unsolved.
People have been practicing trade and agriculture for many centuries and control of technologies, rights of workers, land, cost, and the means of production has always played a big role. Studying the development of vegetable farming in California in the context of American and world history provides a better understanding of the impact that the situation in agriculture has on culture and the economy. History provides multiple examples of exploitation, oppression, and discrimination associated with the food industry and the attempts to control it. Despite technological and cultural development, there are still many such problems. Some of them have been around for centuries, and others are new for our time.
Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman. Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability. MIT Press, 2011.
Garone, Philip. “The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming Since the Dust Bowl. By Sarah D. Wald.” Environmental History, vol. 23, issue 1 2018: pp. 243-244.
Gottlieb, Robert, and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice. MIT Press, 2010.
Guptill, Amy E., et al. Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. John Wiley & Sons, 2017.