Subscribe to Christianity Today
Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (California Studies in Critical Human Geography)
University of California Press, 2004
264 pp., 29.95
Harvest: A Year in the Life of an Organic Farm
Lyons Press, 2006
288 pp., 18.95
Last year, Gourmet magazine editor and veteran food-writer Ruth Reichel asked the questionlocal or organic? "Eating organically is a wonderful thing," she wrote, "but once you start calculating the real cost of food, you begin to think about the expense of flying it halfway around the world. What price do we pay in fuel, in government subsidies, in loss of flavor? Perhaps most importantly, what does it cost our community when we support people in other places at the expense of our neighbors?" These are questions widely asked today in the sustainable food movement, whose slogan has become: "local is the new organic."
In many ways this is what organic was always supposed to mean. Organic was farming for the small scale, seeking to supply local markets with food that was grown with regard for the land. Organic meant food that one could check up on. And the small number of people who were committed to organics did check up on itthey built relationships with farmers, and together the farmers and customers built co-ops. The goal was to create an agriculture that would work at nature's pace and be financially viable. In most of these regards organic farming was successful. Farmers were turning profits and customers were getting fresh produce that they didn't have to worry about.
But a good thing is hard to keep, especially when profits are to be had. Organic moved from being the domain of small farmers to a value-added label in the product portfolios of Fortune 500 companies.
Julie Guthman's Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California is a study of this transition, showing how the organic movement's early hopes were betrayed not only by the co-opting of the movement by conventional farmers but also by flaws in the organic movement's agrarian vision.
The first step in transition came with the growing demand for organics. In the 1960s and '70s, "organic" was a label one could only find in health food stores or co-ops. But in 1971 Alice Waters opened ...