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A Field Guide to California Agriculture

The world of agriculture in California is a formidable buzzing hive of activity whose envoys and practitioners probe every corner of the state's working landscapes. Bold in ambition and vast in extent, California agriculture advances in nooks and crannies where growers experiment with novel crops and clever cultivars rarely before seen, yet soon to be on display in markets across the United States. Some innovations are big, others tiny; some agroindustrial, others organic, and at a boutique scale. All matter, and all make agriculture in California what it is.

Just how many distinct ag products exist in California is a roiling argument. Typically, the total number bandied around is about 400 items. Most are "specialty" crops and animal-derived foodstuffs: they are not considered staples, nor is their production necessarily subsidized (beyond inexpensive water and land) in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ledgers. Safely, we can accept that 300 to 400 crops and agricultural products dot California with diversity, add drama to diet, and push the respect accorded some growers and marketers (both big and tiny) beyond superlatives to neat beatification. This book reviews the roots of California agriculture and provides tools for understanding farming and ranching, along with the production of food, fuel, and fiber, and then adds fitted lenses that help us grasp why and how California came to possess the most dramatic modern agricultural landscape in the world. The drama is physical and human, cultural and economic--sometimes heroic and at other times decidedly tragic.


In 1990, the farmer-author Wendell berry, channeling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, wrote an essay that he titled the "Pleasures of Eating." In it he warned of losing sight of the human relationship to cultivation, stewardship, and animal husbandry. "I begin," he admits, "with the proposition that eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture." Although now a couple of decades old, Wendell Berry's message, quiet and firm, was right. Looming behind the words is a warning that we had best repair our awareness of the world of animals on the farm and range, of healthy food prepared with time and care, and start where it matters--near us.


California is home to 37 million people (2009) and sees vastly more visitors every year. For tourist and natives alike, this is even more your book than ours. Our goal is to provide recognition, facts and information, feed you a storyline, adding the occasional drum roll or bass beat of tension to the story of California agriculture, and in the process encourage exploration and discovery.

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