Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor
The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California.
By Steven Stoll. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Photos, maps, 273 Pages. $35.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Matthew F. Bokovoy, Visiting Assistant Professor of American History, University of Nebraska, Kearney.
Steven Stoll’s The Fruits of Natural Advantage is an important addition to the field of environmental history, providing a synthesis and sustained discussion of the natural and political history of the citrus industry in California between 1880 and 1930. Similar to all well-written and graceful histories, Stoll’s inspiration springs from the mysteries and memories of the social life that had previously existed upon the human landscape of his 1970s suburban childhood in metropolitan Los Angeles. He explains how, as a young boy, he was “Always thrown for a loss by places neglected and things weathered” and “learned to keep an eye out for fragments from the past” (xi). His account of the industrial countryside in the “Golden State” is a thoroughly researched monograph, using the writings, studies, reports, and correspondence from an important array of institutions and people; from nineteenth and early twentieth century agricultural economists, horticulturists, and growers, to agricultural cooperatives, rural legislation, and California State agencies involved in the development of the industrial countryside. If this is the strength of Stoll’s book, it is also its weakness.
Stoll analyzes the development of monoculture, the cultivation of a single specialty or cash crop, which has a long history in the United States. From the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth-century, farmers in Western New England, then the Old Northwest, decided to grow one particular type of cash crop for the coastal markets of eastern cities. The market dictated what types of crops these yeoman farmers grew, but yeoman farmers also chose which crops grew best within the climate, soil, and water resources of their regions. Unlike the profitable grain economies of the Great Plains, the Cornbelt, or the orchards of summertime New England, citrus and viticulture led Californian agriculture, supported by a constellation of powerful public and private institutions. Excitedly, yet modestly, Stoll promises us that “through this narrative the reader will visit vineyards and packinghouses; meet state bureaucrats, merchant capitalists, and university scientists; and walk through wholesale markets and neighborhood groceries to better observe a natural environment being fixed into a worldwide economy” (xii). In the larger picture, Stoll argues that specifically western sets of economic and political institutions underwrote monoculture in the citrus industry in order to protect and create a market for California’s agricultural production, an institutional matrix widely copied in other regions of United States by 1920. Stoll’s accessible style puts a human face upon the impersonal institutions that eventually determined the domestic and international market contours of agricultural production in California, as if to remind us that small human actors in institutional settings do make a difference and propose alternatives, sometimes causing the types of conflicts that bureaucracies were created to prevent. Similar to the work of Donald Worster, Steven Pyne, Donald Pisani, Mike Davis, and the infamous horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, Stoll wants to explore ecologically-sound alternatives to the development of industrial and corporate citrus agriculture in the sunshine state.
The industrialization of the American countryside emerged from the early twentieth century debates surrounding the “rural question” and the anxiety flamed by the perception of shortages in the nation’s food supply and rural depopulation. High prices for food, and declining acreage, writes Stoll, lead to the “appearance of disorder in the places where food came from,” which seemed unsettling to city people (p. 9). Despite the general “search for order” initiated by urban progressives in many parts of the nation during the 1900s, Stoll revives the conservationist arguments swirling around the “rural question.” This debate was best represented by the holistic and naturalistic thought of the horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey and the scientific pragmatism of Edwin G. Nourse. Agricultural ecology and romanticism became pitted against scientism and rationality. The experts won the day, and the natural advantages represented by the climate and soil types of California became the proving ground for intensive agriculture. According to Stoll, one question was left unanswered in the development of monoculture; the experts said little “about how to secure the crop against the many threats to its salability” (p. 31).
Californian intensive agriculture, according to Stoll, is a story of securing success, predictability, and profitability. In chapters 2 through 5, Stoll puts his argument to the test, examining how orchardists formed their own voluntary trade organizations and lobbying groups in order to secure market demand for their crops, and to protect intensive agriculture as a profitable enterprise. Powerful voluntary organizations such as the California Fruit Grower’s Exchange, the Farmer’s Protective League, the California Development Association, and the State Horticultural Society, among others, garnered support from and gained influence in the California State Legislature, the University of California agricultural experiment stations, the spray chemical industry, and the California State Commission on Immigration and Housing. The genetic homogeneity of plant species promoted by monoculture made crops susceptible to domestic and imported pests, and required protection from infestation by debilitating plant scales. Although agriculturists experimented with the introduction of natural insect predators to stop infestations through ecological balance from the 1880s to the 1900s, growers increasingly applied and overused spray chemicals to protect their crops in these “unbalanced” mono-crop ecosystems (pp. 119-122). Monoculture, especially citrus and viticulture (grapes), increasingly required a source of cheap farm labor, for intensive cultivation was also labor-intensive as well. Orchardists preferred white farm labor, but the sense of “white” equality (or labor republicanism) with growers made white laborers intractable and expensive. Ironically, citrus growers became advocates of increased Asian and Mexican immigration between 1912 and the 1930s, putting them in the liberal camp (for purely economic reasons) in the white-dominated racial politics of this period (pp. 124-154). By the 1920s, Stoll believes that monoculture should have been obliterated by the market: “Growers had acquired an integrated network of fast rail service, scientific implements, government regulation, labor procurement, and cooperative marketing Ð all to prop up a crop system that would collapse without them” (p. 156).
Taken as a whole, Stoll suggests that the lack of bio-diversity (a variety of plant species in one ecosystem) created by monoculture might threaten the nation’s food supply from future infestation or drought. This is logical ecological thinking, that our inexpensive oranges, grapefruits, apples, grapes, among other fruits, are the products of market-dictated agricultural practices supported by local, state, and the federal government. Yet, for the specialist in environmental history, Stoll has not consistently demonstrated this larger suggestion that lies buried in his book. He has left out sustained discussions about the shift from laissez-faire to corporate capitalism in the early twentieth century. In addition to the necessity of assessing the power of the “state,” Stoll needs to characterize the ways in which the citrus industry does or does not follow the trend from a voluntary to an activist state; asking whether growers received state and federal aid when it was taboo, or were left with an array of federal requirements and suggestions, similar to other economic sectors such as the home-building industry of the 1920s. In some ways, this is the problem with the book for the educated, but uninitiated, general reader, the California history buff. Without a larger political skeleton in which to hang the skin of environmental history, Stoll’s book is really just a monograph for colleagues and specialists, and not a book for the general public. With a just a little more effort on the author’s part to address a larger audience, but also some updating and some questions (perhaps, how orchards eventually became subdivisions?), this book would have made quite a splash outside of the academy, no doubt, for the prose is graceful, the story engaging. Nonetheless, Steven Stoll’s The Fruits of Natural Advantage is a well-researched and imaginative book that should revision older schools of environmental history. For the imaginative general reader of this journal, one might be able to extend Stoll’s timeline to recall an era when billowy citrus orchards sat atop the ugly malls of Fashion Valley.