Agribusiness vies with democracy in California, book says

A four-generation struggle for social and economic justice across California’s fertile agricultural fields is illuminated for the first time in a new book revealing dire consequences of land consolidation to rural livelihoods, civic interests and democracy itself.

The book, “In the Struggle: Scholars and the Fight Against Industrial Agribusiness in California,” by Scott J. Peters and Daniel J. O’Connell, Ph.D. ’11, weaves together the stories of eight scholar-activists who opposed agribusiness consolidation in California.

Spanning the early 20th century to current times, the book chronicles the historical accumulation of agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley by industrial-scale agribusiness. What O’Connell and Peters – a professor in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – find is that “economic monopoly and land consolidation are fundamentally detrimental to agrarian democracy and the well-being of rural societies.”

Peters and O’Connell will be discussing their book Thursday, Oct. 28 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at 135 Emerson Hall. The hybrid event from the Polson Institute for Global Development will be livestreamed for those who can’t attend in person.

The authors map the chronological timeline of the social movement through the findings and testimonies of engaged scholars who have built on previous work from one generation to the next. The narrative explores historical developments from a modern context and, through rigorous research, unearths new insights about the struggle faced by individual scholars taking on entrenched interests.

Embedded in the narrative is the crucial role that Cornell had in seeding the development of rural sociological research at the University of California. Scholars Orville Thompson, Ph.D ’54; Isao Fujimoto, Ph.D. ’10 (who was awarded his doctorate 50 years after he left Cornell); and Dean MacCannell, M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’68, were instrumental in launching the Applied Behavior Sciences department at UC Davis during the student movement of the 1960s and 70s.

“There’s a rich history of politically engaged scholarship conducted both by community leaders and academic professionals that our book helps to illuminate,” Peters said. “We have a great deal to learn from their work and experiences.”

“In the Struggle” demonstrates what is possible when scholars engage in the democratic process, Peters said. The embrace of activism transforms theory into practice, ideas into active engagement, and hypotheses into social and political change, he said.

“Our book is an invitation to get in the fight – or to start one,” said O’Connell, who studied under Peters while earning his doctorate in education from Cornell. “At this moment of existential crises, when people are struggling to understand, resist and transform the structures that oppress them, our book is a guidebook to action and ammunition for the battles before us.”

Matt Hayes is director for communications for Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Lindsey Knewstub