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Unformatted text preview: CHAPTER 1 The Evolution of California Agriculture 1850-2000 Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode Alan L. Olmstead is Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute of Governmental Affairs at the University of California, Davis; Paul W. Rhode is Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors would like to acknowledge the research assistance of Susana Iranzo. wo competing legends dominate the telling of California’s agricultural history. According to the first legend, California farmers are progressive, highly educated, early adopters of modern machinery, and unusually well organized. Through irrigation, they made a “desert” bloom. Through cooperation, they prospered as their high-quality products captured markets around the globe. This farmers-do-no-wrong legend is the mainstay of the state’s powerful marketing cooperatives, government agencies, and agricultural research establishment. According to the opposing legend, the California agricultural system was founded by land-grabbers who continue to this day to exploit impoverished migrant workers and abuse the Golden State’s natural environment. (Even in its mildest form, this view faults California farmers for becoming full-fledged capitalists, rather than opting for more traditional family farms like their midwestern brethren.) Although the contest between these competing interpretations of the nature of California’s farm system has raged for the past one- and-a-half centuries, neither account has engaged in a systematic accumulation and dispassionate analysis of the available data, and both have generally lacked the comparative perspective needed to assess why California agriculture developed as it did. T The Evolution of California Agriculture: 1850-2000 2 This chapter analyzes major developments in California’s agricultural history to provide a better understanding of how and why the state’s current agricultural structure and institutions emerged. We will focus on major structural transformations: the growth and demise of the extensive wheat economy of the nineteenth century; the shift to intensive orchard, vine, and row crops; and the emergence of modern livestock operations. Intertwined with our discussion of sectional shifts will be an analysis of some of the special institutional and structural features of California’s agricultural development. Here we offer a brief look at the subjects of farm power and mechanization, irrigation, the labor market, and farmer co-operatives. In all of these areas, California’s farmers responded aggressively to their particular economic and environmental constraints to create their own institutional settings. The results have been remarkable. In recent years, this one state alone has accounted for one-tenth of the value of the nation’s agricultural output. What distinguishes California from other regions more than the volume of output, however, is the wide diversity of crops, the...
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