I’m mostly done with Julie Guthman’s book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. I still have to read Chapter 7, a detailed examination of the current organic regulations. I skipped ahead to Chapter 8, called “The Agrarian Answer?”, which concludes the book and considers whether a truly agrarian approach to agriculture is a viable alternative to industrial organic and conventional. Unfortunately, Guthman is very much the modern academic, and she views the family farm as a place where the labor of women and children was exploited by evil patriarchs. Her proposed solutions are very modern, trying to fix the problems of a full-bore capitalistic agriculture by injecting social justice concerns here and there.
Overall, the book is fairly dry reading, mostly because of the challenge Guthman has taken on—this sort of detailed history of business practices just isn’t likely to excite most people. But there is a lot of valuable detail, and Guthman’s interpretation of the historical developments seems largely sound to me. Her writing is relatively jargon-free, although it helps to be familiar with some of the more common academic buzzwords she occasionally employs.
Here are some blurbs for the book from the publisher’s website. The first chapter of the book is available online, and for most people that will be a sufficient summary.
“a meticulous academic study of the institutional dynamics of the state’s organic agriculture.”–Stephen Shapin, New Yorker
“Agrarian Dreams throws a cold shower of reality over the dream of organic agriculture in California, demonstrating all that is lost when organic farming goes industrial. This is a challenging book, and until we can answer the hard questions Julie Guthman poses, a genuinely sustainable agriculture will elude us.”–Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
“Agrarian Dreams puts organic agriculture in a broad intellectual, social, and theoretical context in a readable way. Nobody has written at this scale and scope about organics. The availability of this basic data and interpretation will open discussion to a broad range of citizens, scholars, and decision makers. This is an outstanding work.”–Sally K. Fairfax, Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy, University of California, Berkeley
“Guthman takes on the sacred cow of organic agriculture: that farmers and consumers can transform our food system simply through by adopting new philosophies of eating, farming and nature. With an analysis that is at the forefront of agrarian theory today, she shows that organic farmers, no matter what their philosophy, have to work under the economic gun of markets and land prices. As a result, organic growers in California are forced to become increasingly industrialized, unjust and unhealthy. Her analysis is proof that it will take more than new kinds of thinking to create sustainability in our food system.”–Melanie DuPuis, author of Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink