The Paradox of Organic Farming in California.

 Alice Friedemann’s book review of:  Julie Guthman. 2004. Agrarian Dreams.  The Paradox of Organic Farming in California.  University of California Press.


Guthman writes brilliantly and has important insights about organic agriculture.  If you’re interested in how food is grown and what direction we ought to take in the future, read this book.

I’m interested in the intersection of energy and agriculture, since nearly 20% of the nation’s fossil fuel energy is used to grow, harvest, process, distribute, refrigerate, and cook food.  Industrial agriculture is utterly dependent on (cheap) oil, natural gas, and fossil-fuel generated electricity.

Given that we’re at or near the peak world-wide production of oil, and past peak production of natural gas in North America, the need to change how we grow food is the most immediate and important challenge we face today.

The way we grow food is also destroying topsoil, depleting aquifers, a major contributor of greenhouse gases, and poisoning the land via petrochemicals.

So in addition to the energy crisis, we need to reform industrial agriculture to stop climate change, water shortages, and topsoil depletion as well (see “Peak Soil” for details). Richard Heinberg estimates we need at least 50 million new farmers since growing food without fossil fuels is very labor intensive.

Agrarian Dreams

Organic farming arose from several different movements:

  • Healthy food
  • Protection of food from contamination and adulteration
  • Utopian, communal, and back to the land movements
  • Environmentalism and  bio-regionalism

Organic farming is hard to define — some see it as a way to grow food sustainably, others as an economic alternative to industrial agriculture, and yet others as a way to bring back the ideal of the small family farm that President Jefferson thought was the best possible future for our nation.

Guthman makes the case for community supported agriculture (CSA) being the best future direction of organic agriculture — not small family farms.  To make her case, she explains the history of organic farming, the economic framework farmers have to fit within, the various types of organic farmers and how they grow food, regulation, social justice, and other factors.

California has more organic farms than another state, is second only to Idaho in the number of organic acres, and grows nearly half of the nation’s organic vegetables and two-thirds of its organic fruit.

A great deal of organic food in California is grown by conventional farmers to make more money.   Organic crops are often only a small part of their operation.  Some of them entered organic farming because an organic packer offered a good, fixed price for whatever they grew, minimizing risk.

The majority of organic produce comes from very large farms. Many are what Guthman calls “mixed growers” because they plant both conventional and organic crops. Some mixed growers only grow part of their crops organically because it’s profitable, and perceive 100% organic farmers committed for ecological, health, social justice and anti-agribusiness reasons as hippies.

Other reasons large conventional growers go organic is to avoid “onerous pesticide reporting”, employee lawsuits, and to save money by not having to buy pesticides and fertilizers.

Of the 1,553 organic growers in 1997, all were family owned except for 17 not-for-profit organizations, only two of which were collectives or cooperatives – very far from the hopes of the sixties for alternative food systems and ownership as an alternative to agribusiness.

Two percent of organic farms earn more than half the money in organic crop sales and rarely practice the four basic organic principles:

  1. Conservation of soil and water by use of cover crops, mulching, and no-till
  2. Keeping the soil ecosystem healthy by adding compost and manure
  3. Rotating and growing a wide variety of crops
  4. Biological pest control

Guthman rated farms on a 5 point scale as to how well they adhered to the practices above, with 5 being the highest score.

Mixed growers got an average score of 2, completely organic growers an average of 3 (some of who used to be conventional farmers), and farmers who’d never grown food conventionally scored an average of 4.

There are huge obstacles to scoring a perfect 5.  Planting cover crops rather than cash crops reduces income because the water to grow them is expensive and there’s no revenue generated. Making compost has many issues – manure that’s not aged enough can damage crops, the space used to make compost takes up valuable land, and takes time away from cash crops — it’s like managing another crop given all the time it takes to monitor and turn over. Planning when and where to grow a variety of crops, rotate them every season, and biologically control diseases and  pests on each type of crop is expensive because it’s time consuming and labor intensive.

Very few professional farms score a 5. They grow the same crop in the same place every year because they know which laborers, marketers, and packagers to hire.

Hobby farmers are most likely to score a 5, because they are small scale and have enough committed, knowledgeable labor to practice all of the principles.

Economic pressures also make it hard to live up to these all of these ideals.  Only twenty percent of organic food is bought at farmer’s markets — the best strategy for small and medium farms, but not always an option if they’re too far from urban centers, or have a crop that needs to be packaged.  In that case, small farms have little bargaining power and end up selling their crop to non-farm brokers for little, if any, profit.

Large organic farms can get better deals from middlemen, make profits from economies of scale, and do their own marketing and processing.

Despite the low score of large growers, Guthman feels attacks on them are misplaced, because they have to operate within an existing economic and institutional framework.

That any farm has to exist within the market economy, as if it were a factory producing widgets, is insane – farmers are vulnerable to ruin every year from weather, pests, and disease.

Responding to market signals is impossible since there’s too long a time between planting and harvest – farmers won’t find out until it’s too late that everyone else planted the same crop, reducing prices across the board. This makes it hard for farmers to stay in business, let alone practice sound ecological principles.

Farmers are rewarded for intensification of food production, not conservation.

To stay in business, farmers only have a few strategies – plant something few others are growing, grow food organically, plant something difficult to grow industrially like heirloom tomatoes, or brand your product in such a way consumers will pay a premium for it like grass-fed beef.

In a market economy, other farmers copy this successful strategy, so innovations don’t last long.

Meanwhile, industrial farming forces farmers to be dependent on expensive inputs  like fertilizers, buy more and more equipment and to keep growing to have better economies of scale than other farmers who can’t keep up.

After all that, most of the profits go to packagers, marketers, and distributors.

No wonder 5 million farms have gone out of business since 1930, with about 2 million still existing.

Since agricultural land is valued by how much money crops earn, the pressure to intensify production of crops (by mining topsoil, fertilizers, chemicals, etc) is huge. This need to intensify production is made worse by the need to keep the land ahead of the value it would have if developed commercially or residentially.

To stay in business, farmers used twenty-fold as much fertilizer between 1940 and 1980. Despite the high productivity that resulted, nine million acres of prime farmland were lost to developers between 1955 and 1992 in California, nearly a quarter of the prime farmland, and many more acres since 1992 in the recent housing boom.

Land values in some areas of California are so high that some crops, such as strawberries, must be grown year round with no rotation, fallowing, or cover crops.

Some see small family farms as the only way to ensure proper care is taken of the land to pass on to future generations.   But organic small family farms are often not economically viable because they have little leverage with non-farm brokers, have no economies of scale, often can’t afford to pay their workers a decent wage, and the land isn’t necessarily kept ecologically soundly since absentee wealthy owners hire contractors from afar to take care of their farm.

Guthman makes a good case for the style of organic farming that overcomes economic and land use pressures the best are community supported agriculture subscription farms.

These farms adhere to organic principles by the very nature of their business, which is to sell a wide variety of crops to their customers. Subscription farms are profitable because they manage to avoid giving up most of their profits to middlemen by marketing directly to local consumers.

This also lowers the energy used to distribute food, which now travels an average of 1500 miles.

Very knowledgeable and committed employees work on these farms and receive the highest pay and benefits in the industry.

The complexities of growing food organically provide endless learning opportunities, and it’s an interesting and challenging way to make a living.


Since wind, solar, and other alternative forms of energy can’t replace fossil fuels, the best use of the remaining energy, money, and time we have left is to invest in subscription farms, and training the next generation in organic, soil conservation, and integrated pest management skills. This will lower greenhouse gas emissions immediately, give hope and a rewarding and meaningful lifestyle to the next generation, and make the hard landing ahead a bit softer.


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