Farmer lineages are keys to grit
Ag at Large
he non-farm public is being encouraged to get acquainted with farmers. As that happens the public may learn more than it really wants to know or accept.
In California, and probably in other farm communities in America, ethnic backgrounds are strongly represented among the farm population. A public sanitized by see-no-race philosophies and educations will be surprised by the strength farmers gain from their forefathers and where they came from.
Some can be explored here, but much more than this space is required to fully reveal the ethnic background and backbone that plays such an integral part in California’s agriculture.
For example, the state’s dairy industry is largely operated by descendants of two nationalities, the Portuguese and the Dutch. Not only are most California dairies owned by members of one or the other nationality, both tend to hire employees of their own heritage, often those who have immigrated recently, reinforcing the racial component.
In the tree fruit and raisin segments of the state’s agriculture the Armenian influence is extremely strong. While it is most prominent in the area in and near Fresno, where raisin production is also prominent, it extends both north and south, and to other crops as well.
California’s fresh market grape production is centered in Delano in Kern County, and Delano centers around the Slavic community. Grape growing families can recall earlier generations that grew grapes on slopes overlooking the Adriatic Sea before migrating to America.
Japanese influence and traditions are deep seated in several smaller fruit-growing communities in Fresno and Tulare County: Dinuba, Fowler, Parlier, Reedley, Selma. The same is still true in smaller communities north of Sacramento such Lincoln, Newcastle, Penryn and in Orange County, home of former California Secretary of Agriculture A. G. Kawamura. Strawberry and cut flower production in the Watsonville area are strongly reflective of Japanese culture, as is fruit and sweet potato production near Livingston.
Punjabi populations are prominent in several California agricultural strongholds, the southwestern portion of Fresno County, the southeastern portion of Tulare County and in fruit-growing regions of the Sacramento Valley, radiating from Marysville and Yuba City.
The Italian influence on California agriculture is noticeable in many parts of the state and at many levels, from field production to sales, especially in wholesale markets. At the grower level it is especially strong in the Stockton area and the outer cities of San Joaquin County. Find it in Castroville artichoke country, elsewhere along the Central Coast, Santa Maria especially, and wherever wine grapes are grown.
Southeast Asians dominate truck farming in Central California, and Germanic traditions prevail in the farming areas near Turlock and some other Stanislaus County communities. Swedish and other Scandinavian influences are celebrated in such agricultural centers as Kingsburg in Fresno County.
And Oklahoma has contributed an influence and cultural significance to the tapestry of California agriculture equal to any country. From the platform of hard work and low pay in difficult conditions the “Okie” segment has helped transform cities such as Bakersfield as well as the state’s farming personality.
A similar transformation is taking place today as the Latin underpinning of the farm labor market rises to take its place in the production and distribution of an astounding number of essential food commodities produced, packed, handled and shipped from California.
To all of these groups traditions mean a lot. Many of the traditions are based on a work and business ethic that does not take kindly to regulations by off-farm power and political sources. For them resistance to outside interference originated generations ago, and persists today.
Friendliness is a virtue with all of these farm groups as well. You can begin to know a California farmer by knowing a bit of his or her ethnic background and honoring it. It’s all part of learning “where he’s coming from” according to today’s vernacular. A map of the world may help.
Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant in the Valley. His column appears each Monday in The Recorder.