Ad for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

How California Agriculture has Shaped the State and the Country

California, a state known for high-tech and show business glitz, is also America’s farming powerhouse.

PUBLISHED MAY 8, 2023 4:03 P.M.
Share this:  
They help feed the whole country, but life for California’s farm workers remains a struggle.

They help feed the whole country, but life for California’s farm workers remains a struggle.   Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

California is America’s food-producing powerhouse. Despite being home to just 4 percent of the farms and ranches in the country—83,217 of them, according to the most recent United States Census of Agriculture—the state generates 11.04 percent of the U.S. agricultural value. In 2021, that meant $51.3 billion in cash receipts from agriculture poured into California. In fact, California is the fifth-largest supplier of food and other agricultural products in the world.

The Central Valley alone—the 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide region starting just south of Bakersfield and extending northward to Redding—produces 8 percent of America’s food supply though it contains just 1 percent of the country’s farmland.

Half of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. come from California, and the state effectively produces all (at least 99 percent) of America’s almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and walnuts. California is also the nation’s leading grower of lima beans, lemons, kumquats, raspberries, strawberries, and spinach—to name just a few.

Where Would the American Diet be Without California?

If California were to suddenly stop producing food, America may not starve, but eating would instantly become a lot more expensive and less healthy. And much grainier.

Orchard crops—nuts and many fruits—would virtually disappear from the market and numerous vegetables would become more difficult to find. When the price of fruits and vegetables rises, food consumers turn to grain-filled diets loaded with bread and rice to make up the difference. It should be noted, however, that about 20 percent of the U.S. rice harvest comes from California.

As happens in most every crisis, society’s most disadvantaged would be hit the hardest. Research has shown that high prices are a significant barrier for low-income families to eat healthy diets based on fruits and vegetables.

The loss of California food production would not be a concern only for fruit and vegetable eaters. While not one of the country’s biggest beef producers, California’s roughly 11,000 ranches are home to 670,000 beef cattle. That’s the 16th-most of any state.

California does, in fact, lead the nation in milk production.

As of 2019, almost one of every five pounds of milk in the United States (18.57 percent) came from California’s 1.72 million milk cows. (One gallon of milk is equivalent to 8.6 pounds.) Almost half (46 percent) of the 41.9 billion pounds of milk produced in the state every year, according to California Milk Advisory Board statistics, is used to make cheese.

The resulting 2.4 billion pounds of cheese makes California the country’s second-largest cheesemaker. California is also the United States’ leading maker of ice cream, churning out 133 million gallons per year, with 12 pounds of whole milk required to produce a single gallon of ice cream.

How did California, better known in the 21st century for its high-tech and entertainment industries, become the agricultural engine of the United States? The answer goes back to the period that first defined California—the Gold Rush.

The California Population Boom of the 19th Century

The great California Gold Rush was a demographic-change rush. Three months into 1848, the entire population of California stood slightly under 157,000, of whom roughly 150,000 were indigenous people. Another 6,000 were Californios, that is, Californians of Mexican or Spanish ancestry. Fewer than 1,000 belonged to neither group.

Less than two years later the promise of instant riches in gold country had brought 100,000 new migrants into California from out of state. California became an American state in 1850. and by 1860, the population of California nearly reached 380,000.

Those hundreds of thousands of new Californians came from all over the other United States and the world. In the subsequent decades as California’s population boomed, nearing 600,000 by 1880, people from New York and other eastern states, plus Ireland, England, Germany, China, Japan, Italy, Portugal and of course Mexico now called themselves Californians. As diverse as the new residents were, however, they had one thing in common. They all had to eat.

The Mission System and the Origins of California Agriculture

California in the 1850s was a consumer state, requiring large amounts of food but producing only a limited amount. So where would that food come from?

In the early 19th century, California missions were outposts of Franciscans first dispatched in 1769 by the Spanish King Charles III, and supported by Spanish troops, to convert California’s indigenous people to Christianity. Even more importantly, from the Spanish perspective, the “mission” was to indoctrinate, by whatever means necessary, the native Californians to European ways, to make them more compliant subjects for colonization.

The missions themselves were mythologized in earlier versions of California lore as oases of “song, laughter, good food, beautiful languor, and mystical adoration of the Christ,” in the words of 19th-century poet Helen Hunt Jackson. In reality, they were closer to the description offered by California historian Carey McWilliams—who in his 1946 book Southern California: An Island on the Land called them “a series of picturesque charnel houses” that rounded up the native inhabitants, first by the temptations of “food, colored beads, bits of bright cloth, and trinkets,” and later by brute force. Once the missionaries had the indigenous Californians behind their mission walls, they enslaved them.

Cut off from their families, communities and culture, frequently beaten, shackled, and devastated by a range of European diseases for which they had no immunity, the enslaved native people were forced to work in the fields as the missions each cultivated extensive farmland. 

But because they relied on slave labor, the missions saw no upside in investing in agricultural equipment or technology. According to McWilliams’ account, the missionaries didn’t even bother building fences around their crops because it was cheaper to force enslaved people to guard the fields. As a result, under the inhumane system imposed by the Spanish missionaries, California agriculture remained primitive.

Rise of the Rancheros

After launching a war of independence in 1821, Mexico wrested control of the California territory from Spain and ended the mission system in 1834. Rather than redistribute the land owned and farmed by the missions to the native people from whom the missionaries seized it, the Mexican government carved it up and granted it to private individuals, mostly wealthy California-born Mexican families.

The former mission land now became known as ranchos, and the owners were rancheros. Many native people, whose numbers had been cut in half under the mission system to 150,000, went to work on the ranchos, some under virtual slavery conditions despite having been ostensibly freed when the Mexican government abolished the missions.

Ranchos grew crops such as corn and wheat, as well as some orchard fruits. But their main product was cattle and other livestock. Under the rancheros, California agriculture remained stalled.

The Mexican-American War, ending in 1848 with the United States annexing California from Mexico, brought an end to the reign of the rancheros. But would the settlers who immediately began pouring into California do anything to develop the nascent state’s agriculture?

Agriculture Takes Off

The new Californians who arrived in search of gold found that meeting their basic need for food was expensive and was only getting more so. The fact that many prospective miners arrived in California with, quite literally, nothing but the shirts on their backs (and pants, presumably), meant that demand for all sorts of goods was high—especially food. So merchants could get away with charging outrageous prices. 

According to historical sources, it wasn’t unusual for a single egg or slice of bread in 1849 to go for a whole dollar—almost 40 bucks in 2023 cash. The local food production shortfall was made worse by California farmers who ditched their own fields to head for the hills in search of instant riches. Oregon farmers stepped in to fill the demand for food, but it didn’t take more than another few years for miners to realize that only a lucky few were going to strike gold, and that there were profits to be taken in feeding the ever-growing number of Californian mouths.

The young state’s vast expanses of open land, wet winters and dry, warm summers proved ideal for grain crops. Wheat became the state’s first major agricultural product. At first, the wheat farmers, most of whom came from eastern and midwestern states where conditions for growing were very different, were innovators.

California Farms and the Need for Cheap Labor

In states where land was not as plentiful, wheat farms were small and could be managed and operated by members of the families who owned them. California farmers in the 1850s and 1860s oversaw fields so large that no single family could provide enough labor to maintain them. California farmers led the way in creating “factories in the field,” as Carey McWilliams called California farms in his 1939 exposé of farm labor conditions, that relied on hired laborers to keep them running. But labor was scarce, driving wages up. By the 1870s, California workers commanded 70 percent better pay, on average, than their counterparts in regions to the east.

The state attempted to solve the problems of labor shortages and their resulting high costs by importing workers from abroad, mainly from countries much poorer than the still-young United States: Japan, India, China, and of course Mexico provided relatively plentiful sources of farmworkers who would accept low pay and arduous working conditions.

When Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed the explicitly racist “Chinese Exclusion Act” in 1882, barring (with a few exceptions) Chinese workers from entering the U.S., the California agriculture industry had to find a pool of labor that could compensate for the sudden shortage of Chinese immigrants. The problem was, white farm workers refused to accept the same scant wages and harsh conditions that had been imposed on the Chinese. At least, white adults did.

The solution? Children. The state Board of Trade held serious discussions of a plan to “substitute the labor of deserving white boys” for the now-dwindling supply of Chinese immigrant workers. This situation persists. According to the Center for Farmworker Families, in the United States about 400,000 children now work as farm laborers. The Federal Labor Standards Act offers less protection against child labor in the agricultural industry than in most other industries.

The need to hold down labor costs led California’s farmers to another innovation: mechanization. A study published by the journal California Agriculture in May of 2000, found that in processing rice and tomato crops, mechanization reduced the use of human labor between 92 and 97 percent compared to the period prior to mechanization, and cut labor expenditures from up to two-thirds of total farm costs down to 20 percent. In the late 19th century, California’s farmers didn’t have those numbers at their fingertips, but they didn’t need to. The new mechanization was the key to continued profits.

Grain Farmers Forget One Important Thing

In their focus on profits through mechanization and reduced labor costs—horses rather than humans powered much of the machinery of the era—California’s grain farmers overlooked one important element of their business. While they aggressively pushed the technology of mechanization forward, they overlooked the necessity to adapt their cultivation practices to changing conditions.

According to a report published by the University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, the wheat farmers did little to update their agricultural methods and techniques. The result was that “decades of monocrop grain farming, involving little use of crop rotation, fallowing, fertilizer, or deep plowing, mined the soil of nutrients and promoted the growth of weeds.”

A number of agricultural entrepreneurs saw the opportunity for a new type of farm production—fruit. George Gregg Briggs was a frustrated gold miner who created a series of orchards along the Yuba River, in the heart of gold mining country. After a flood in the winter of 1862 he moved his operations down to Ventura County—finally relocating to Alameda County. Briggs began by planting watermelons and using his profits to ship peach, apple and pear trees from New York state for replanting in California.

William Meek and his business partner Henderson Lewelling developed the state’s first cherry orchards in Alameda County by importing cherry trees from Iowa, and following up with almonds, plum and apricot orchards. Then there was Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant whose innovative methods of cultivating grape vineyards made him a key figure in the birth of the Californian, and American, wine industry. Those were just a few of the hard-charging fortune-seekers who saw their chance for prosperity not in California’s mines, but in its soil.

California’s Agriculture Industry Today

More than 170 years after those entrepreneurs founded what became one of California’s defining industries, as many as half of all American farm workers live in California, and a reported 75 percent are undocumented immigrants. Though these workers are indispensable to keeping the California agricultural juggernaut plowing forward, they face harsh and often inhumane working conditions ranging from poor food and housing conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals to regular sexual harassment.

In 1962, activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association, a forerunner to the United Farm Workers of America which is the first and longest-operating union for agricultural laborers. Chavez and the organization led a series of protests for farm worker rights, perhaps most famously a four-year boycott of California-grown grapes.

Today, farm workers rank among the state’s lowest-paid workers. While many farm workers are paid an hourly rate that actually exceeds, albeit slightly, the state’s minimum wage, farm work is spotty and few laborers average 40 hours per week, which would be considered “full-time” work. As a result, according to figures from the Economic Policy Institute, the gap between “full-time equivalent” (FTE) wages and actual wages is wider for California’s farm workers than for workers in any other industry. A worker in the “fruits and nuts” sector would make an annual $30,038 working full time. But in actuality, due to the impossibility of putting in 40-hour weeks throughout the year, those workers make an average of $18,565 per year.

California’s agricultural industry has also endured droughts that just since 2020 cost $1.2 billion and almost 9,000 lost jobs, according to a study at the University of California, Merced. But a 2019 meeting of the California Board of Food and Agriculture heard a largely, if cautiously, optimistic assessment of the future. By the year 2050, UC Davis economist Dr. Daniel Sumner told the board, income from farming will have continued to grow, and demand for the state’s agricultural products will remain high—as long as the state manages labor costs, the water supply, the requirements of government regulations, research and development, and climate change.

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

This article is tagged with:
Related Articles
Immigrants continue to shape the face of California today.
California’s History of Immigration: How Immigrants Built the State
Immigration was changing California long before the territory became a state.
Water is a human right under California law, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Agriculture and Water Shortages in the State’s Breadbasket, Explained
There are many causes contributing to this crisis. And as you may already know, this situation really is nuts.
Suburbia has become a defining feature of the California landscape. But what does the word really mean?
How the Suburbs Shaped America, and California Shaped the Suburbs
California is known for its sprawl, but the state may not be as suburban as people believe.
Join Us Today!