By Daniel O’Connell
While the San Joaquin Valley is renowned for its labor history and community organizing heritage, less well known is the work scholars have contributed to the civic life and political movements of the region.
In 2002, as I finished a graduate degree at the University of California at Davis, a professor handed me a copy of Walter Goldschmidt’s As You Sow – a book that altered the direction of my life. Also known as the “Arvin and Dinuba study,” the research was conducted by the federal government in the 1940’s. Controversial from the start, the research was designed to see if the acreage limitation and residency requirements of federal law were to be applied to the Central Valley Project. If implemented the law would have resulted in gradual and voluntary land reform throughout the San Joaquin Valley and the western United States.
The provisions of reclamation law established during the Progressive Era were clear if a landowner signed contracts with the federal government to receive water at subsidized prices they had to have a farm of 160 acres or less and live on the farm receiving the water. Properties in excess of the limitation could still receive federal water, but the landowner would then be obligated to sell all land in excess of 160 acres after ten years at the land value established prior to water delivery in order to prevent speculation.
Anyone knowing the highly skewed and unequal ownership of land in the San Joaquin Valley finds themselves astonished at the provisions of reclamation law, as it was designed – and would have fostered – a much different and equitable economic foundation of family-scale farmers and small businesses throughout the region. Writing in 1978, Goldschmidt framed the 1944 Arvin and Dinuba case study, “It was designed specifically to investigate the social consequences of corporate farming, that is to test the validity of the agrarian assumption by the use of sociological research techniques. These assumptions had long been expressed in law, most particularly the Reclamation Act of 1902 (and its subsequent amendments). This law provided that irrigation water developed through federal subsidy must be allocated to lands held in family-size units. The question at issue was whether this law should be applied to the Central Valley Project of California which was then nearing completion of its first construction phase.”’
In order to determine if reclamation law should be applied to the Central Valley Project, a straightforward research design compared Dinuba in Tulare County which was surrounded by smaller-scale farms to Arvin in Kern County bracketed by much larger agricultural landholdings. The research clearly found that Dinuba had a much higher quality of life and nearly double the retail economy than Arvin. Just as the title of his book referenced the biblical forewarning of reaping what is sown, Goldschmidt’s findings were clear, “When farms are of a generally uniform size, there can be little concentration of powers, and social interaction operates on the premise of equality. Where large-scale and corporate agriculture develops, it follows not only that there are great differences in the level of control among the managerial group, but that a cadre of economically dependent laborers will emerge. From this, there follows a system of social distinction, with a powerful group and a relatively alienated and disaffected working class. The economically and socially advantaged groups look outside the community for both their economic and social needs, so that both local business and local social organization wither. Increased power in the hands of a small sector tends also to be self-reinforcing, so that once the process is initiated, it will continue to grow unless measures are taken to counteract it.”
Reading such findings more than fifty years after the original study, and knowing that the San Joaquin Valley today has the highest rates of poverty, hunger and environmental problems in the United States, is shocking and infuriating given the lost opportunity to “counteract” the problem earlier. More disturbing however was how the government treated its own commissioned research – the Arvin and Dinuba study was censored and a subsequent, more rigorously statistical study was suppressed and disallowed. Upon learning the history of the study, as a scholar and a citizen, I decided to further this line of academic inquiry at Cornell University. Over the next fifteen years, I took seminars, studied in libraries and eventually moved to the San Joaquin Valley to live.
My doctoral dissertation, completed in 2011, is titled, “In The Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California.” It documents and theorizes the historic work of six social scientists – Paul Taylor, Ernesto Galarza, Walter Goldschmidt, Dean MacCannell, Don Villarejo and Isao Fujimoto – who engaged in struggles for social justice, economic equity and democratic governance in the Valley over the last 75 years. The narrative of their work not only brings forward a critical history of how public institutions were influenced by private interests, including the non-implementation of federal laws even after Supreme Court decisions upholding their legal basis, but also introduces a tradition of engaged scholarship in defense of democratic governance.
This Fall, the Reedley Peace Center will host a speaker’s series inviting not only the living scholars who were involved in the historic effort to promote economic fairness and democratic values in California but also current scholar-organizers who continue the struggle today in the Valley.
The 2016 Fall calendar of speakers at the Center is:
- Friday, September 23rd – Dr. Scott Peters, Cornell Development Sociology professor
- Friday, September 30th – Dr. Daniel O’Connell, San Joaquin Valley scholar
- Friday, October 7th – Dr. Don Villarejo, California Institute for Rural Studies founder
- Friday, October 14th – Dr. Dean MacCannell, UC Davis emeritus professor
- Friday, October 21st – Dr. Isao Fujimoto, UC Davis emeritus professor
- Friday, October 28th – Trudy Wischemann, Rural advocate
- Friday, November 11th – Dr. Sarah Ramirez, Tulare County Foodlink executive director
- Friday, November 18th – Tom Willey, San Joaquin Valley organic farmer
- Friday, December 9th – Janaki Jagannath, San Joaquin Valley agroecology coordinator
- Friday, December 16th – Dr. Jonathan London, UC Davis Center for Regional Change director
Ask yourself: Are there any farms of 160 acres or less with resident farmers receiving federal water in the Westlands Water District today? How different would Mendota, Huron or Cantua Creek be economically if reclamation law had been enforced? What economic policies are conducive to foster and maintain a democratic society?
The Reedley Peace Center meets on Friday evenings at 6:30pm at the First Mennonite Church Fellowship Hall located on L Street between 12th and 13th Streets in Reedley. Join us for this Fall to learn about this important history from the people who lived it.
Daniel O’Connell is the chairperson of the Central Valley Partnership. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.