In 1931, here in the San Joaquin Valley, the term "agribusiness" first appeared in the American lexicon. Farming in Kern County has usually been a family affair, but these families (often Eastern and Southern European immigrants), frequently created highly successful farming operations that rely heavily on imported water and low-cost labor.
More than $6 billion a year is generated by agricultural sales in Kern County, making the county the second or third leading farm county in the United States, depending upon the conditions in a given year. Today grapes, almonds and dairy lead the list of money earners, but in the past King Cotton ruled Kern County.
Native Americans in the area could be described as traditional hunter-gatherers. But they tended the wild by manipulating nature to their best interests by replanting the best bulbs and tubers or using fire to keep the stands of oak and pine easy to harvest and full of game. By the time the first Mexicans settled in the region in the 1840s, the natives had already adapted to European-style agriculture, planting melons and grasses along the rivers and lakes on the valley floor.
As the Gold Rush moved southward in the mid-1850s, pioneers along the upper Kern River began to establish farms to provide miners with meat and vegetables. Ranching was the first major agricultural enterprise, as stocks of European cattle were interbred with wild Mexican cattle in the 1860s and 1870s and pastured along the Kern River and the various lakes it fed south and west of Bakersfield.
Among the early ranching entrepreneurs was Col. Thomas Baker, the founder of the city, who had purchased some small-scale irrigation projects from previous pioneers in the 1860s in order to raise grass and alfalfa for his cattle. Due to the suitable range for sheepherding, Kern County also became known for producing mutton and wool, and for the Basque sheepherders that would eventually settle the area with their families.
Kern County residents witnessed first-hand one of the most famous court cases in American history; a case that has been the subject of volumes of scholarly books and articles and that has made many an attorney wealthy deciphering the labyrinthian water laws of California.
Land baron vs. land baron
Henry Miller and Charles Lux were prosperous San Francisco butchers who got into ranching in the 1850s. In a ruthless and crafty manner, Miller and Lux took advantage of the federal Swamp Act of 1851. (The law offered to sell "unreclaimed" swamp land for pennies an acre if the buyer promised to "improve" the land, which in this case was all the land abutting the rivers of the San Joaquin Valley.) MIller and Lux controlled more than a million acres of land and its attendant water rights, or so they thought, and they began to raise substantial amounts of cattle and horses.
Lloyd Tevis, James Ben Ali Haggin, and William Carr were also wealthy capitalists who invested heavily in Kern County land in the 1870s and 1880s, buying up significant water rights and water systems that pioneer farmers had painstakingly built across the Kern River watershed around Bakersfield. During the Great Drought of 1877, Haggin and the others began to drain the Kern River through their canals, and as a result, tens of thousands of Miller and Lux's cattle died on the San Joaquin plain.
This being the Wild West, the parties handled it the old-fashioned way -- they went to court. In a series of decisions culminating with the California Supreme Court (Lux v Haggin 1886), the courts eventually decided that the riparian water rights of Miller and Lux superseded the prior appropriation claims of Haggin and Tevis, though both parties had already settled on an agreement in 1880 to split the water of the river.
The importance of the Lux v. Haggin decision is that the state Legislature responded with the Wright Irrigation Act of 1887. (Named after Modesto congressman C.C. Wright.) The law allowed individual farmers to band together, elect officers, tax themselves, and appropriate the water rights of land barons like Henry MIller in order to bring the water to their farms via an Irrigation District. To further assist in the growth of irrigated agriculture, in 1902 Congress agreed to pay for dams and canals that irrigation districts could repay over a lengthy term. This federally subsidized water was supposed to go only to farms of 160 acres or smaller, though that provision eroded over time due to conditions in the West and lobbying from farm groups.
Irrigation propelled the rise of Kern County agriculture into a global economic force. By 1910 electric pumps were multiplying as fast as they could build the electrical system to power them. Soon farming colonies would emerge in Edison, Arvin, Shafter, McFarland and, famously, an African-American colony called Allensworth, north of Wasco. People emigrated from across the globe to make a fortune in Kern County. Some, like Joseph DiGiorgio, came to the area with vast capital and purchased tens of thousands of acres. Others, like Marin Caratan, who arrived from Croatia in 1918 (after a few years scrubbing dishes and working as a laborer in San Francisco), used their minds and their muscles to build capital after starting out on small farmsteads.
DiGiorgio, whose holdings were primarily in the Arvin area, farmed to provide produce for a grocery distribution network his family already owned on the East Coast. Another noted local agriculturist was W.B. Camp, who arrived in Kern County at the end of World War I as a U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist interested in breeding cotton.
With the backing of the Kern County Land Company, Camp developed a high quality variety of cotton -- Acala -- and a program backed by law to keep the seed stock pure from inferior varieties. Kern farmers have always employed science and technology as well as university researchers, and in the case of cotton, the USDA Cotton Field Station at Shafter helped propel it into an empire crop. Through the 1970s cotton was the top crop locally, and tens of millions of Americans wore t-shirts and slept on sheets that were sourced from the fields of Kern.
Farmworkers demand fairness
Though mechanization and automation are ever-present forces in the farming world, the demand for agricultural labor has never abated, and the problems of perpetual poverty and tough working conditions have led to much labor unrest over the years.
While many in Kern County have a personal memory of the strikes and boycotts of the Cesar Chavez period, the struggle to organize farmworkers into labor unions had already started a century ago, when Industrial Workers of the World farm labor organizers faced beatings and jail in the years before World War I. In the 1930s strikes were accompanied by violence in the fields, leading to deaths and mass walkouts, along with allegations of communist influence among the unions, and extralegal parapolice activity by local farmers.
Tension over pay, working conditions, and respect led to the Great Delano Grape Strike of 1965, and the subsequent worldwide boycott of California table grapes. Though the strike originated with Filipino grape pickers who sought a raise from $1.05 an hour to $1.25, the walkout was soon joined by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the nascent union they led.
The strike went on for more than three years and, in the process, the United Farm Workers led a consumer boycott, which was both effective and divisive, especially locally, where relations at times took on a war-like intensity. The national and international media followed the strike closely, and Sen. Robert Kennedy made Delano famous in his visit to investigate farm labor conditions in 1966.
After years of acrimonious strikes, boycotts, and violence, in 1975 Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed for worker elections on individual ranches.
In the years since World War II, agriculture in Kern County has continued to evolve. In recent years, table grapes, dairy and pistachios have risen in value, as old staples like cotton have diminished. Periodic price fluctuations, bad weather, pests and blights are always challenges, just as new technologies and new scientific breakthroughs offer hopeful solutions to the farmers of Kern.
Farmers and their supporters continue to seek relief from what they view as an excessive regulatory environment, and the need for more water storage is pressing; nonetheless the overall prospects for Kern's future agricultural economy are as solid as its past.
Randal Beeman earned his doctorate in agricultural history and rural studies from Iowa State University. He is an emeritus professor of history at Bakersfield College.
This first appeared in a Californian special publication, "The story of us," Aug. 6, 2016.