On Contact: Struggle against industrial agriculture
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the struggle against industrial agriculture with author Daniel J. O’Connell.
The San Joaquin Valley in California is the most agriculturally productive farmland in the United States, but it is also plagued by high levels of poverty and water pollution, as well as the serious health risks that come with constant exposure to pesticides. These huge corporate farms in California, established over the last century, became the model for modern agrobusiness designed to exploit a transient labor force, bankrupt, and seize small family farms, exhaust the soil, and drain the aquifers and reservoirs. These agrobusinesses use their economic might to buy elected officials, deform the court system to legalize their assault on the land, and silence criticism in academia and the press. They are largely unregulated and unaccountable. The disastrous consequences for family farms and farmworkers, plagued by extreme poverty, a retreat into often lethal addictions to blunt the pain of dislocation and suicides, however, is only part of the destruction wrought by these industrial farms. These agrobusinesses have, as the authors Daniel J. O’Connell and Scott J. Peters argue in their book ‘In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California’, eroded the bedrock of democracy itself. The authors look at the fight by eight scholars who foresaw and fought the agribusinesses, most of whom were attacked, censored, and marginalized for their critiques.
Daniel J. O’Connell and Scott J. Peters’ new book is ‘In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the struggle against industrial agriculture with the author Daniel O’Connell.
Daniel J. O’Connell: Galarza recognizes that there’s a dynamism on campus but it’s among the students, it’s not among the faculty, and I think that what you have in Galarza is someone that has absolutely the modus operandi and the justification, his literal life meaning is probably to empower his community, that is in the act of being oppressed.
CH: The San Joaquin Valley in California is the most agriculturally productive farmland in the United States, but it is also plagued by high levels of poverty and water pollution as well as the serious health risks that come with constant exposure to pesticides. These huge corporate farms in California established over the last century became the model for modern agribusiness designed to exploit a transient labor force bankrupted and seize small family farms, exhaust the soil, and drain the aquifers and reservoirs. These agribusinesses use their economic might to buy elected officials, to form the court system, to legalize their assault on the land and silence criticism and academia and the press. They are largely unregulated and unaccountable. The disastrous consequences for family farms and farm workers plagued by extreme poverty, a retreat into often lethal addictions to blunt the pain and dislocation, and suicides, however is only part of the destruction brought by these industrial farms. These agribusinesses have, as the authors Daniel O’Connell and Scott Peters argue in their book, In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight against Industrial Agribusinesses in California eroded the bedrock of democracy itself. The authors look at the fight by eight scholars who foresaw and fought the agribusinesses, most of whom were attacked, censored, and marginalized for their critiques. Joining me to discuss In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight against Industrial Agribusinesses in California is Daniel O’Connell. So let’s just set the scene, and it becomes a very important topic because the model is now large across the United States, and explain--we’re not going to go into all of the eight scholars who fought against agribusinesses, we’re going to focus on one but just set the scene for us.
DO: So the simplest way, Chris, and thanks for having me on, is to realize that this is the most productive food-producing region in the history of the world, and yet it has the highest levels of hunger, poverty, you know, environmental pollution in the United States and so that paradox invites, first of all, inquiry and analysis. And then over time as we see in the book’s narrative, the corruption that is indicative of the region in its skewed resource allocations, necessitated the scholars to push back and therefore, teach us lessons. This is by no means a done deal, we’re in the midst of this fight right now, hearing out in the valley and I agree with you, this is a story that’s spread through the Sun Belt states of Florida, Texas, Arizona, and now in the--by 1980s, throughout the whole--entire Midwest. So the lessons from this book articulate the problem but also very importantly it’s a call to action and a guidebook on how to resist and hopefully win in the end.
CH: Before we go into our discussion about one particular scholar who’s a remarkable figure, a lot of books were written by these scholars that were very prescient in terms of the destruction, this was at the inception of this industry and most of these books, by the way, I didn’t--I don’t know. I was not familiar with them, but just talk a little bit about some of the titles because I think they become very important for those of us who are concerned about the consolidation of agriculture into the hands of a tiny number of corporations.
DO: The book begins with Walter Goldschmidt who probably did the Seminole research in the discipline of rural sociology and that was research done for the Bureau of Ag-Economics to determine whether federal reclamation law should be implemented and the lessons of that--the findings of that were immediately censored, a follow-up study was suppressed, he finally published that book under the title As You Sow. And I think that’s the most important title of--that you would be referring to. The biblical reference, so we shall reap, and as we witness from that moment in the mid-1940s, we begin to witness not only the non-implementation for 40 years of reclamation law which would’ve resulted in both the water going to farms of a hundred and sixty acres or less, you had to be a resident of the farm, and after 10 years, this is the most important thing, after 10 years, if you did sign the contract with the federal government to receive water at subsidized prices, after 10 years, you would have to sell all excess land above 160 acres at pre-water prices, pre-speculated prices. So the law actually had embedded into it a land reform, a mild voluntary land reform if you’re going to receive government subsidy. So Chris, so you shall reap is--has multiple both agricultural, ecological, and civic, and political outcomes, that’s the most important, and then we have some other wonderful ones like American Exodus which was written by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor, so those are some of the most important ones that we find early on.
CH: And yet these scholars and academics were marginalized, many were caught up in the McCarthyism, the Red Scare, smeared lawsuits just before we go into our discussion of Ernesto Galarza, let’s make it clear that this didn’t come without a cost.
DO: No one should be naive to think that knowledge is neutral. Knowledge in--utterly knowledge is political, it’s positioned, it’s situated, it comes within histories, it comes within context. This history of research and remember, it’s going back a hundred years of research in this book and the different--each chapter is a different voice and testimony, and series of findings telling us about what happened. So we should not be naive to think that you won’t receive pushback and in fact, one of the most important findings in this is if you want to know if you’re doing relevant work, you should expect pushback. And as we’re going to see in Galarza, Galarza was, I think, the only scholar in here who baited his adversaries to enable himself to see them more easily.
CH: Before we talk about Ernesto Galarza, I want to quote--you quote Wendell Berry, a writer who admire very much, and this is the chapter on Goldschmidt, “In rural communities dominated by very large farms, the settlement and housing patterns reflect the increasingly transient nature of the labor force. The symbol of the large corporate farm becomes the trailer house. Community institutions suffer from lack of leadership and from the lack of a sense of commitment on the part of the labor force to long run community welfare. Those institutions that survive take on a dependent character, reflecting the paternalistic role of the dominant firms. Income levels may stabilize but at the expense of a declined and local capacity for risk-taking, decision-making, and investment of family labor in farms and local businesses. And this gets to one of the points that’s themed throughout your book with all of the scholars that you profile, is that this is, at its core, an assault on democracy itself.
DO: It is. Chris, if there’s one finding that comes as clear as day in this is that an equitable economy is both a requisite condition and a measurable outcome of a democratic society. It’s just illustrated so much more clearly and in agrarian rural societies because you can witness it firsthand. The lessons in the book, Chris, and I’ll be fascinated, it’s--as the pandemic restrictions lessen as coming forward, Scott and I look forward to coming through the Midwest, in the Sun Belt, and talking about how applicable is the lessons in this book to other context that I think Wendell Berry is probably witnessing when he’s writing that quote in the Midwest. And again, really importantly, how many lessons in here articulated help them to find ways not only to understand their lives but also to impact and change it. Isao Fujimoto says that if you don’t know what story you’re in, how are you going to make any sense of the world? And it feels to me like so many White folks in our country, and especially rural--also rural folks, are in search of a narrative and they’re picking up pretty easy ones, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-science. What I like and what we wanted in this book that it’s a series of stories. It’s a--it’s a narrative in and of itself. It should be much more amenable to people to pick up and understand this really, and to digest it over time. The truth is out there now, of what happened in California and its repercussions and how we’re taking ground. Now we’re advancing here, mostly because we are such a multiracial society. Diversity in ecological systems is very important, very similarly in political and civic context you want diversity as well. And so I think that diversity starts showing us the way forward.
CH: Let’s talk about Ernesto Galarza, I didn’t know about him until I read about him in your book, born in Mexico in 1905, his family moves to the United States at the time of the Mexican Revolution. He comes as a boy, he works as a hop-picker in Sacramento, and then talk about where he goes from there because it’s a pretty remarkable trajectory.
DO: You know, he mentions that he becomes a leader of the Mexican community at that early age simply because he knows a few words of English. He--his trajectory is incredible and it’s written in a series of books, one of which is Barrio Boy. Ernesto Galarza then does a series of jobs but where we pick it up is he gets his undergraduate degree at Occidental College, he goes for a Master’s Degree at Stanford where his--where his life’s work is archived still in the Green Library there, and he goes on to Columbia University. And this is a moment when we see the real character of Ernesto Galarza, coming from such intense poverty, he doesn’t take a position at the university, he chooses to work for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union as in their effort to organize California agribusiness and create a union of farmworkers in California. He then leads a series of strikes, the first one is against the DiGiorgio Farms which is the large agribusiness surrounding Arvin which is the town Goldschmidt juxtaposed to Dinuba, to compare large farms to small farms, in about 1947, 1948. So Galarza walked--comes in with a--with his degrees, he armors up, and there’s a few weapons there if you think about knowledge being used in a--in a way to organize people and he means to organize farmworkers. DiGiorgio fights back along with agribusiness as a whole, this is the era of associated farmers, this is an era when some--there’s political violence, some labor organizers are being killed. Galarza’s in that mix. The main action they take against Galarza though is a defamation suit, and he writes about this in his book, Spiders in the House, Workers in the Field. And so we see a series of over 10 years of fight over what is defamation, with Galarza and his union first being sued over the--a film that was produced out of the filmmakers guild in LA, and multiple unions were sued on that, successfully dismantled the--dismantled that union which they recreated. The film was never allowed to be permitted to be seen again, and DiGiorgio used that every time in the future to attack his adversaries, this turn on defamation which it took Galarza 10 to 15 years to find out that an act--a specific bureaucratic technical mechanism in congress of just being able to contribute testimony but not letting that have the weight of an actual law was where the legitimacy was founded upon and Richard Nixon was the one that crafted that with a few other congress people that statement of remarks, and that was used to bolster the court case. The statement of remarks was itself an act of defamation, that Galarza finally found that that--that that statement was actually typed in the agribusiness offices of the--of the DiGiorgio. So we see someone that’s actively using public mechanisms law, he also is organizing the era of the Braceros. So the federal…
CH: Let’s stop--let’s stop there because we need to talk about that. Who really strike me as, and now we brought it back through undocumented workers, but when we come back, we’ll continue our discussion about the attacks and the silencing of scholars who criticized the modern agribusiness industry with Daniel O’Connell. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our discussion about the attacks and the silencing of scholars who criticized the modern agribusiness industry with Daniel O’Connell. So let’s talk about--before we do that, you--I want to talk about this idea of a spider’s web which Galarza popularizes and he’s right. Explain what he means by that, and then let’s go into the labor force itself.
DO: One of the most important things that scholars contribute is we take time to theorize a problem, but if you put it out in the real world, I’d say Galarza is learning to be strategic in how he attacks. He recognizes that he’s been trapped in a web. And he--and this web, the spider continues to cast the web repeatedly. He stays within the web, if you will, or he’s already in this--in this context. And so what he does is he begins to slowly untangle the web. What’s so dramatic is that at the same time you as a scholar, if you’re doing this kind of Gramscian grounded work in community, you yourself have to maintain your stability. He loses his job for instance. There’s a portion in the book where he is writing a letter looking for work on Christmas Eve, right? He mentions later to Chicano studies students in the 1970s that he had to be hospitalized 1959 for sheer exhaustion for three months. So the costs are extraordinary on him and yet we see somebody who continues to stand back up and get in the fight. And Chris, at the end of the--of the preface, we write contest over truth are wars of attrition. And in the book, you see this intergenerational baton passing of scholars who sometimes get their asses kicked. And they realized that they’re not going to solve the problem, and actually the problem is getting worse, and they handed it off to scholars as Goldschmidt literally does to me in the first chapter. He gives me his papers. Some of the lessons of Ernesto Galarza’s chapter are the most important, especially for young organizers of color. I say to these folks, you don’t have to read this book in order. Start with Galarza, go to Janaki Jagannath, read Don Villarejo, but Galarza is the one I always point the young organizers to. He is an organizer and a scholar, you can do both. It’s very difficult though.
CH: I want to talk about the Braceros program, what that was, Galarza fought it successfully in the end. And that gave way to the United Farmworkers Union, Cesar Chavez and others, which it would not have been possible without that victory. And then I wonder if we haven’t just replicated that system through undocumented workers.
DO: Yes. Galarza’s organizing before the UFW, the Braceros are lowering wages. They’re being used as strikebreakers. We--the narrative of Braceros is complex, however. A lot of those Braceros, they stay in this country, they raise families, their children are lawyers and politicians and wonderful folks today. In the labor context, it gets very complicated if you’re trying to organize workers and you have other workers undermining your efforts. And this is what was happening during Braceros. You know, Galarza works to undermine the authority of the Braceros program by defending the Braceros and interviewing them, organizing them, talking about their conditions, the breaking of the contracts with them that’s not being followed by our own government. And basically over a series of books, the most important is probably Merchants of Labor, but you see Galarza increasingly put research out there that undermines the legitimacy of the law. And finally in 1960, the law is overturned. However, his union was destroyed with the year before. So by 1963, ‘62 you see the UFW successfully winning contracts with growers. And I would say an enormous benefit that they had that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and others had was that they were organizing outside of the era of Braceros. And that crisis in farm labor, you see the industry two things, the industrialized, the University of California for instance creates the Tomato Harvester, that’s undermining farmworkers and small farmers. What also happens is the federal government allows, basically opens a spigot of undocumented or workers to come in and to reside here. And I think, Chris, that because of that, you see the beginnings of the change that’s now happening in California. Those both the Braceros that stayed and those documented workers had children here, those are citizens. Some of those children and grandchildren of those first farmer--farmworkers that were allowed in here are now some of the most ferocious environmental justice and equity advocates that we have in the region. And so what you had is, is that the effort of agribusiness going back from the Japanese, to the Chinese, to the Filipinos, to--on the way up to today the Mixtecos and indigenous people from Mexico that were driven out of there due to NAFTA. That context is now the seedbed for a demographic change that’s resulting in civic and political beautiful transformations that are happening in the valley here today.
CH: Great. And just for those who don’t know, the Braceros program was a federally supported international farm labor infrastructure that funneled workers in the United States. I found Galarza very wise on many issues and one of the ones that particularly interested me was his advice to activists and organizers about how to cope with institutions. And if you stay too long in an institution, you’ll become institutionalized with very negative consequences. I thought that was really smart. And can you talk a little bit about that idea?
DO: Galarza’s offered over the context of his life to become a professor. He was an adjunct faculty in multiple universities, law schools, the most interesting perhaps is UC Santa Cruz. He has faculty that want him to stay there. He’s by this time taking up the fight over bilingual education, for instance among many other fights. Galarza recognizes that there’s a dynamism on campus but it’s among the students, it’s not among the faculty. And I think that what you have in Galarza is someone that has absolutely the modus operandi and the justification, his literal life meaning is probably to empower his community that is in the act of being oppressed. And which he witnessed that oppression over his entire life. He wanted to be effective. And Chris, it comes back to the title of our book, In the Struggle. And I think it’s a call for major universities, especially research universities that are becoming increasingly privatized and corporatized. If we want to punch at existential problems like climate change and endemic poverty and pollution, we need to be within the context of the problem we want to solve. Galarza never wanted to be on a university campus for a long period of time. He encouraged students and organizers to inhabit those places, to take everything they could out of them and then come back to the communities and organize.
CH: He condemns universities, you write, for what he calls the pigeonhole mentality. It’s a pretty prescient critique, explain what that is.
DO: I think the best one is this--the way that research and knowledge is produced, especially in a positivist scientific way, and when that applies to human beings, that’s very difficult, but also how we construct knowledge as scholars. This disciplinarity with let’s say Paul Taylor was desperately upset that the disciplines of political science and economics had been separated, that they cannot literally be separated and the book shows that. If you want to make any meaning out of politics, they--the economic system in the Central Valley and I’d say across the United States and globe is polluting the civic and political processes of our country, in these rural areas. Paul Taylor knew this, and so you need interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary problem solving. You need different methods, too. Statistics tell a story, Chris, but to actually impact the problem, what I think has evolved into action research is what Galarza was doing, that an anthropologist that I took a class with at Cornell, David Greenwood, once said, you know, the campus based scholarship isn’t critiqued enough as being conjecture or speculation because it’s so far from the problems that they’re trying to solve. In this era, Chris, the book is a call to action of academics and scholars, and not just those with letters after the name to actually directly engage the problem very similar to what Antonio Gramsci did in Italy in the ‘20s to confront fascism there.
CH: Great. That was Daniel O’Connell executive director of the Central Valley Partnership and co-author with Scott Peters of In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight against Industrial Agribusinesses in California.