"We in the United States are in the early throes of a revolution," writes historian Linda L. Ivey in the foreword to Cultivating a Movement, "a radical change in the way we think about food." The revolution Ivey refers to is the organic farming movement, the biggest change to American agriculture since the adoption of synthetic pesticides and herbicides after World War II. "For this development in our food industry we can thank, in large part a group of revolutionaries from the Central Coast of California."
More than two dozen of those revolutionary farmers were interviewed for this book, a project of the University of California, Santa Cruz' library. Each chapter contains the narrative from one farmer or farm family, and their stories and perspectives are radically different. Some, like Betty Van Dyke, who grew up on her Croatian-American family's orchard in Cupertino in the 1930s were born to the land; others were hippies, like Amigo Bob Cantisano, founding organizer of the Ecological Farming Conference, the West's largest and oldest sustainable agriculture conference, and a descendent of California's earliest Spanish families. Cantisano began growing food in the backyard of a commune in the late 1960s:
"That's when I started doing gardening, because it was like, starvation time, and the Diggers were giving away free food, but the only thing else that was really around was USDA surplus food, which was a bunch of crap...We didn't have any money, so we started gardening, tore up the backyard and started growing stuff, partly because I had a little experience from when I was a kid, and partly because I was just determined to do it. And then there was one other kid who had grown up and lived on a farm...So the two of us ended up being kind of the commune's gardeners."
Oral history is a rich way to gather first-person accounts of any era or place. But we ramble when we talk; interviewers need attention and sensitivity to keep interviews focused and also remain open to potentially valuable digressions. Editors must be able to separate the verbal chaff from the valuable kernels of story while preserving the distinct characteristics of voice and personality. Fortunately for Cultivating a Movement, interviewer-editors Reti and Rabkin, plus interviewer Ellen Farmer, had the deft touch necessary to yield a book of compelling and informative stories.
Like that of María Inés Catalán, the first Latina farmworker to own and operate an organic farm in California, and the first in the whole country to operate a CSA, a community-supported agriculture farm. Inés Catalán was the last of her migrant farmworker family to emigrate from Mexico, arriving two decades ago with four children in tow.
"When I went to learn how to develop a CSA, everything was in English. I went to a conference in San Francisco and we had to sleep in the car. We'd have coffee and a donut all day, because we didn't qualify for the lunches...And I would say, 'All of these things I am going through have to add up to something someday, because this can't all be in vain.' And sure enough, now we have our own CSA. We have it all...Right now we are attending a farmers market in the marketplace in Ferry Plaza [San Francisco], every Saturday. And I'm at the one in Berkeley three times a week. Those are the best markets in the whole country, in the whole country. So, just imagine. But like I say, I didn't get there with just my good looks..."
Cultivating a Movement brings the revolution of organic and sustainable farming alive through the voices of those with dirt under their fingernails as well as those who did the research and crafted the original organic-labeling legislation. It's a satisfying and nourishing read.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Project Director, interviewer, and editor Irene Reti directs the Regional History Project at the UC Santa Cruz library, where she has worked as an editor and environmental historian since 1989. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies and a Master's in History from UC Santa Cruz.
Interviewer and editor Sarah Rabkin has taught in UC Santa Cruz's writing progran and environmental studies department for over twenty-five years. She holds a B.A. in Biology from Harvard University and a graduate certificate in Science Communication from UCSC. Her book of essays, What I Learned at Bug Camp, was published in 2011 (and reviewed on SCBR).
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