Expanding the meaning of Food Systems in Washington State from Colonial Farming Legacies

“Food Systems in Washington are about Salmon and Huckleberries, not only farms.”

-Valerie Segrest, Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project


A great part of the work that I do with Community To Community Development as the Food Systems Researcher has to do with advancing Food Sovereignty and Agroecology here in the Pacific Northwest. A big part of that is the historical knowledge that already exists, such as the presentation above that shows that food systems and food sovereignty has not been about farming for the most part in Washington state because the original inhabitants of this area had cultivated lush food forests and habitat for Salmon and other creatures over thousands of years, the farming or agricultural system is barely just over 100 years old as you will read below, and land speculation rather than feeding people has been the main driver in the development of industrial agriculture in the region. I publish this chapter of my embargoed dissertation because it is relevant to current struggles that are happening across the state and nation, in regards to what we dream of for the future in Washington State and beyond.

Source: Chapter 2 of Embargoed and Unpublished Dissertation:

Agribusiness and Mexican Farm Worker Families in Washington State (1964-2013)

by Tomás A. Madrigal, Ph.D., 2016.

The Transformation of Agricultural Production in the Development of Rural Washington State

The United States of America’s Imperialist expansion into the western part of the North American continent under the banner of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century is what made the large-scale development as posited by Carey McWilliams (1939) of industrialized agricultural production possible. During this period of expropriation of land from Native American sovereignty, large swaths of land were violently made available to white settlers (Luxemburg 1951). The development of land tenure in California in contrast to the smallholdings pattern in the North East and the plantation holdings pattern in the U.S. South was heavily influenced by the Spanish imposed hacienda system that existed in the region prior to 1848 when the territory was ceded to the U.S. by Mexico (Palerm 2014). In California, the 1849 gold rush led to an unbridled practice of land speculation that was facilitated by the early incursions by U.S. Euro-Americans who intermarried into land holding families (Castañeda 1997; Goldschmidt 1978; McWilliams 1949). According to Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz (2014),

the colonization plan for the West established during the Civil War was carried out over the following three decades of war and land grabs. Under the Homestead Act, 1.5 million homesteads were granted to settlers west of the Mississippi, compromising nearly three hundred million acres (a half-million square miles) taken from indigenous collective estates and privatized for the market” (Ortiz, 2014, 141).

In Washington, the development of settler colonialist estates created a market that grew as the Northern Pacific railroad was completed in 1888, where those that had been developing land were able to sell at higher prices to settler colonialists coming to the West for the first time (Johansen 1957, 309; Oberst 1989, 15). But, as Dunbar Ortiz points out,

they appropriated what had already been created by Indigenous civilizations. They stole already cultivated farmland and the corn, vegetables, tobacco, and other crops domesticated over centuries, took control of the deer parks that had been cleared and maintained by Indigenous communities, used existing roads and water routes in order to move armies to conquer, and relied on captured Indigenous people to identify the locations of water, oyster beds, and medicinal herbs (Ortiz, 2014, 46).

Indeed, settler colonialists that came because of the Homestead Act did not start from scratch as most of the literature regarding pioneers suggests, rather they came and took over already established indigenous food systems. They were also beneficiaries of the Department of Agriculture’s incentives created to subsidize new settlers as well as to teach them how to farm. These same entities also benefited from land grant University research and development funds that were granted by federal agencies to help with the pestilence many of the new farmers were dealing with as they introduced new species of plants to the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the 20th century, most of the established indigenous food ecosystems that were in place were decimated as indigenous people were moved and restricted to reservations under threat of death.

2.1       Indigenous Food Systems in Washington State

The development of industrial agriculture in Washington State was made possible only through the virulent mortality that decimated the inhabitant Native American populations, which was quickly followed by forced removal under military threat. Highly advanced Coastal and Plateau societies were displaced and land was consolidated in the name of European progress (Deloria Jr. 2012).

The first transformation of agriculture in the region exponentially diminished bountiful, complex, geographically dispersed and seasonally oriented food systems into two distinct productive regions. To the west of the Cascades, small-scale intensive vegetable agriculture predominated and to the east of the Cascades land extensive cattle ranching, wheat and orchard agriculture dominated the landscape.

In each of these geographies diverse groups of indigenous tribes, bands and autonomous families had cultivated vast geographical areas and migrated between equally diverse ecosystems based upon seasonal growth patterns. Both food systems were primarily governed by the bodies of water in the region, the geography and form of social organization. Those who lived on the coastal bodies of water and tributary rivers, where there were forest ecosystems, practiced a type of small-scale agroforestry and oceanic aquaculture because they were organized primarily into autonomous villages that were self-sustaining. The tribes and bands that lived on the Columbia Plateau lived in the Columbia River watershed, a temperate desert ecosystem, where competition for resources created the need for diverse political groupings ranging from autonomous villages, bands of villages, and complex tribal societies that systematically cultivated camas (a nutritious root) such as has been documented with the Nez Perce tribal communities.

These complex food systems were invisible to many white settlers who claimed that there was a complete “lack of agriculture” by “nineteenth-century Anglo American civilization standards”(Banner, 164). In Washington, Columbia River Basin and Plateau societies like the Yakima, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla and Nez Perce migrated over even greater expanses of territories depending upon the season. According to Johansen and Gates (1957), the Plateau cultures, “gathered roots, such as the camas; on the mountain slopes, berries; where deer grazed and buffalo roamed they hunted (Johansen and Gates 1957, 15).” Nez Perce women practiced a type of extended permaculture, as they would manually divide and replant camas bulbs in open and sunny meadows that they would clear by fire (Hunn 1990; Turner & Loewen 1998). In contrast, Coast Salish people like the Nuxalk of British Columbia, “moved from location to location throughout their traditional territory over the course of the seasons to harvest and process different food as it became available. The harvested food was carefully preserved –usually by dehydration, but also by smoking, and in some cases fermenting or storing fresh in cache pits and containers (Kuhnlein, Erasmus, Spigelski, 28).” Their agroforestry was not limited to food, as the maintenance of Cedar groves played a central role in Coast Salish culture. Indeed, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the proliferation of the Buffalo into New York due to the agroforestry practices of indigenous people in the Americas (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 27-28). The cultivation of camus also required a similar agroforestry technique. Ángel Palerm documented four versions of a similar technique in the precolumbian farming practices in the cultivation of corn in Southern Mexico which he called the roza system (Á. Palerm 1967: 29-34). Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz dedicates an entire chapter on how these systems were used in the United States before contact (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 15-44). All of this wealth of agricultural knowledge and the accompanying agrarian societies came under attack because of U.S. imperialism as argued in the preceeding chapter by Rosa Luxemburg.


2.2       Cultural Change, Treaties and War

This way of life would undergo a major transformation as technological advances in transportation and warfare would facilitate the westward expansion of Anglo settler colonizers from the east. The development of rail transportation and the propagation of germ warfare and artillery that could mow down remaining Native American forces from a distance facilitated the removal of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest which was settled in the mid 19th century. As a result of the treaty made at Point Elliott on January 22, 1855, the Northwestern Coast territories west of the Cascades were taken by the United States. In the Columbia river basin east of the Cascades, the Yakama Nation, Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla, and Nez Perce signed treaties at Camp Stevens on June 9, 1855 where under the treat of death, over six million acres of territory were taken by the United States in order to make way for white settlers from the U.S. and international prospectors who wanted to lay claim to the region at that time.

To the east, the Camp Stevens treaties were signed in the middle of the Cayuse Wars, which lasted over 8 years, and were followed subsequently by the Battle to Protect the Toppenish Longhouses known by settlers as the Yakama Wars (1855-1858). The substantial victories of the Yakama War against the U.S. Army inspired other Native American tribes to continue resisting the encroaching settler colonizers which culminated in the better known Nez Perce War of 1877. This struggle resulted from the refusal of several bands of Nez Perce to cede their ancestral lands to the United States and accept confinement to a reservation.

To the west of the Cascades, the Puget Sound War (1855-1856) took place between the U.S. and Settler militias against the Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Puyallup and Klickitat tribes in an attempt by the militias to enforce the treaty and to displace these tribes from prime land. Native American resistance to European encroachment was steady and fierce. After 1855, many of the conflicts between white settlers and the remaining Native American tribes and bands that were removed to reservations had to do with the persistence of rape, theft, land encroachment (treaty violations), and the systematic murder of Native Americans by white settlers and the U.S. military. The nature of this violent displacement of indigenous people from their land created the conditions necessary for land speculation (Goldsmidt 1947, Daniel 1982, Zaragoza 2007).

2.3       White Settlement, Railroads and the Rise of Monoculture Agriculture

According to Johansen and Gates (1957), “The white man had to destroy the natives’ ecology to build his own civilization (22).” Contrary to the impression of an immediate transformation, the vast the majority of white settlers began their life in the region as prospectors, railroad workers, loggers and miners. Because they were not farmers, most of the meat and agricultural products had been shipped to Washington from the Sandwich Islands and from England. In 1839, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company (a subsidiary of the British Hudson Bay Company) established farms at Fort Nisqually and Cowlitz prairie which shortly after came to occupy hundreds of acres of land to feed the prospectors. From 1846 to 1869 over 400,000 white settlers emigrated from the eastern United States into the region via the Oregon Trail. Much of the overland migration was spurred by the 1849 gold rush in California, followed by a gold rush in eastern Washington in 1850.

A gold rush in Walla Walla in 1860 drew even more prospectors, including a large amount of Chinese to Washington. In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad to San Francisco was completed. This became the preferred land route for emigrants to the West until 1881 when the transcontinental line of the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Spokane. All three intercontinental railroads leading into the West were land-grant railroads. The railroads received “a 200-foot-wide right of way and sections of public lands to help finance construction…if sufficient lands were not available within this primary grant, other sections could be selected as lieu lands from a secondary zone which reached back from the tracks another twenty miles” (Johansen 306-07). The Northern Pacific line that runs through Washington State started later because though it was granted a generous amount of land it was not offered sufficient government loans. The line struggled financially; original plans were for the line to go up the Yakima River near the Yakama Reservation across the Cascade Mountains (307). According to Johansen, “in 1870, the charter was amended to permit the main line to follow the Columbia [river] (ibid).” Though it is not explicitly stated, the Yakama War of 1855 to 1858 must have created a considerable obstacle for the Northern Pacific line to run its tracks through their territory, as it most definitely would have encroached upon contested land.

The rapid transformation of the land was deemed necessary to make way for the railroad between 1881 and its completion in 1883. By “November, 1882, Portland had unbroken service to Walla Walla’s wheat fields (Ibid).” In 27 years, between 1855 and 1882, Washington’s southeastern plateau had been transformed by white settlers into vast and rolling monoculture agriculture with a transportation system for export of mass-produced grains to far away markets by rail. W.D. Lyman (1901) reported that in Walla Walla by “1866 there were already five flouring mills in the valley” and that in 1865 “seven thousand barrels of flour were exported from the Walla Walla valley” (Lyman 1901, 150). Though settler colonizers came to eastern Washington’s already established wheat country, it was natural resource extraction that drew workers to the western part of the state.

The boom of Mining, Logging and Agriculture at the turn of the 20th century.

According to Johansen (1959), “in 1880 there were fewer than a thousand farms between the Sound and the Cascades” and though there were cattle ranches in the Ellensburg and Eastern Washington ranges, agricultural production lagged in this region (317). This number more than tripled over the next ten years,

Eighteen hundred new farms were established between the Sound and the Cascade Mountains within ten years, and crop values increased by nearly $2,000,000. This expansion was modest compared to the that of the wheat lands across the mountains (Ibid).

The transportation development of the railroad along the Columbia River propelled the agricultural development of the land around it. According to Johansen (1959), “In ten years some 2,500,000 acres of agricultural land were opened in Idaho, the Columbia Basin, and Wallowa district of Oregon (Ibid).” These new regions of agricultural development from their beginning out produced their rivals in the eastern part of the continent. Though successful, agriculture in the late 19th century was far surpassed by capital gains made from resource extraction. Mining and Logging remained the central economic activity in the region as mountainsides around the railways were clear-cut and ore was shipped out of the Cascades to distant markets. Contrary to the Manifest Destiny call for White stewardship and patronage of Native American lands, the extractive process of primitive accumulation was disastrously wasteful (Johansen 321).

The mining, timbering, fisheries and farming industries were responsible for the development of the coastal port system. Quartz mining introduced a new era of extraction to the region in, “sections of eastern Washington where mining had languished since the middle sixties, new machinery and large-scale processes of extraction and reduction revived the industry and made it a principal enterprise (323).” Professional miners replaced the hit and miss self employed prospectors of the past (ibid). This new type of mining was too expensive for local communities to benefit; most mining companies operating in the region were from other parts of the world with little investment in the communities that provided labor for the firms. It was in this way that the Pacific Northwest’s first proletarian labor force grew as these extractive industries developed.

Thus mining, lumber and farming created the basis for the growth of urban centers in the Pacific Northwest to finance, process and ship raw materials for export to a wider market. Industrialized agriculture grew proportionately as these urban centers required more food and agricultural products the faster they grew. As more trees were cut down, Native American ecosystems were devastated and new farmland became available for settler development.

2.4       Agricultural Development in Washington State

Prior to the technological innovation of the rail system, Washington’s agricultural development was slow to develop; most of the agriculture that occurred was for local consumption. Cattle ranching in central Washington to feed the prospectors and railway workers in the region dominated agriculture. The entry of the rail system allowed for the expansion of the grain industries, such as wheat farming, and the agricultural economy in eastern Washington began to emerge through the introduction of orchards and vineyards as more settlers arrived. In western Washington’s coastal regions, small scale dairy farming developed as small plots of land emerged as more land was cleared of timber.

This legacy of industrial farming developed in the aftermath of settler colonization has continued to shape Washington agriculture, even into the present. According to senior agricultural economist Des O’Rourke,

Washington agriculture is diverse in many different ways that affect the mix of commodities produced. It has at least four different climatic zones that support different types of agriculture. The high rainfall, coastal climate of western Washington is suitable for dairying, cool season vegetables and berries. With the benefit of irrigation, the arid desert climate of central Washington supports intensive cultivation of many fruits, vegetables, potatoes and specialty crops, such as hops and mint. The moderate-rainfall, dryland farming area of eastern Washington is especially favorable for the production of grains and legumes. In addition, there are extensive rangelands throughout the state at higher elevations that are suitable for cattle ranching. (O’Rourke, N.D. 4)

In the same essay, O’Rourke found that “between 1997 and 2007, the area of land in farms fell by 3.8 percent while the number in farmers fell by 15.4 percent,” he continues, “the biggest decline in area planted was wheat, which was by far the most land-intensive crop in Washington” (Ibid 2). Even prior to 1997 this trend in the decline of land-intensive crops emerged proportionately to the availability of irrigation made possible by land reclamation projects in central (mostly canals) and later southeastern Washington (dams). The technological innovation of land reclamation projects shifted land-extensive production in these regions towards land-intensive production. O’Rourke found that trend in the span of 10 years that this continued to be the trend,

In contrast to wheat, acreage in other major crops, such as apples and potatoes, rose through much of the 1990s, but lost ground after the onset of the Asian financial crisis hat disrupted many key export markets for Washington Agricultural products…but has risen rapidly for minor crops like sweet cherries and wine grapes(Ibid).

This was how Washington State’s agriculture developed after imperialist expansion.


2.5       Agricultural Development in Rural Eastern Washington

Anthony Zaragoza (2007) documented the development of the apple industry in Washington State from 1890 to 1930. According to Zaragoza, over one hundred years, 1830-1930, the vast geography of eastern Washington was transformed, “into vast irrigated tracts of monoculture farms and orchards (17).” Zaragoza argues that the growth of the agricultural industry was subsidized by the federal government and railroad industry as part of U.S. Imperialist expansion during that time period. In regards to farming he claims,

the federal government aid did not stop with taking the land and securing it from its indigenous inhabitants. The public-private partnership between the federal government and the railroads provided the burgeoning apple industry of Washington with the infrastructure for shipping the new commodity and irrigation necessary to fully develop the commodity and the new industry (Zaragoza 2007: 16-17).

According to Johansen and Gates (1959) the federal governments capital investment in the region was followed by “the nation’s last great internal movement of agricultural peoples (Johansen & Gates 1959: 372).” Between 1900 and 1920 the population of Washington saw an influx of 999,395 people (ibid). Of these emigrants, “Washington’s came principally from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota” (ibid).

The internal migration, according to Johansen and Gates (1959) was due primarily to higher wages, “in 1890, 75.5 percent of the planing mill [which turns boards from a saw mill into finished lumber] employees in Washington earned $50 or more a month; of their counterparts in Minnesota and Wisconsin, only 16.7 and 34.5 percent received as much” (Ibid). It was thus in the 1890s that the first waves of immigrant laborers began to flow into the region and the warehousing of a proletarian labor pool began.

Though the region had less to offer immigrants as their numbers increased, as more land was cleared by lumber companies more land was available for farmers and furthermore “private and railroad land companies” wanted to sell land to new settlers (Johansen & Gates 1959: 373). The federal government helped spur this migration through the continued proliferation of the Homestead Act of 1862, “qualified persons could file on 160 acres of unappropriated land for a fee of $10. Residence or cultivation for five years was required before a patent would be granted (ibid).” The Homestead Act made available relatively cheap land for the new settlers, but not before railroad companies capitalized upon it, purchasing it in bulk from the government and reselling it to homesteaders for a profit of over 60% per acre and also in larger plots.

Between 1910 and 1915 agriculture in the region surpassed mining and logging as the most important economic activity. By 1910, “nearly one man in four of those gainfully employed was engaged in some kind of agricultural or animal industry (374).” Farm values increased in this time by “nearly 300 percent” making land speculation a very lucrative business in the region (Ibid). It is in this context that the transformation of Washington state agriculture from homesteads to industrialized agriculture took off in a relatively short amount of time. West of the Cascades, yeoman farms coexisted with these new commercial farms, but east of the cascades, agriculture developed from the beginning in its industrialized form.

Contrary to the initial consideration that the region remained dominantly a wheat-producing region, by 1910, “the vegetable gardens of the Northwest accounted for 8.1 percent of total crop values, whereas the national figure was only 7.6 percent (376).” In fact even in 1910, “the region put a slightly smaller proportion of improved land into grain, a somewhat larger proportion into forage, and slightly more into vegetables than did the nation as a whole (Ibid).” In fact, by 1910, Washington state’s agricultural development was moving closer towards the California model of agricultural production, even though land speculation in each region came from two completely different origins. Experts of this time period agree that the driving force towards industrialized agricultural production, the production and selling of agricultural goods as commodities, was driven by technological advancements and federal government aid, as well as state and local planning through research centers (Palerm, 2014).

According to Zaragoza, one such commodity that was developed in Washington State during this period was the apple. Within one generation of their production in the region, apples were “able to compete at the national and international scale and after two generations became the…world’s leading apple producer (20).” According to Johansen and Gates (1959), “in the Wenatchee, Okanogan, and Yakima valleys apple ‘ranchers’ achieved unsurpassed productivity (380).” By 1917, apple production in Washington had increased tenfold since 1910, the increase was linked directly to the development new markets made possible by the expansion of railroads. By 1917, Washington had become the number one producer of apples in the United States “putting on the market 20 percent of the total commercial crop for the entire nation (ibid).” Even in 1917, the large-scale farming required a tremendous amount of labor, in particular during the harvest, the cultivation process of the period remains,

The soil had to be conditioned with plow and harrow, enriched with mulch and manure. In irrigated areas furrowing or ‘creasing’ was necessary to care the water to each individual tree, and a monthly schedule of watering was followed from May to August. Pruning and thinning trees called for skill and good judgment. Spraying involved four different treatments, extending from the dormant period of early spring until the end of summer. Harvesting in the fall required extra help. Pickers at the rate of $2.50 per day, loosely filled fifty to eighty boxes in a ten-hour stretch. The fruit was then sent to a packing house, where it was sometimes individually wrapped as in the case of apples, tightly packed in boxes and stored in specially constructed quarters until shipped to market (381)

The extensification of production in such industries was made possible primarily due to technological advancements that made it easier to transport the products to distant markets and later to warehouse commodity apples until market prices were better.

Many commercial orchards owed their existence to improvements in artificial refrigeration. Prior to World War I such installations could handle only a small part of the crop; much of the fruit was moved to eastern storage, and the remainder put in local “common storage” houses. But with organization of packinghouses and cooperatives, methods of handling fruit were improved and storage plants and refrigerator cars developed by the railroads enabled the apple grower to move his crop to larger market areas and preserve it for sale throughout the year (Ibid).

These were the roots of industrial agriculture in eastern Washington that preceded the emergence of Broetje Orchards, a case study in this dissertation.

2.6       Agricultural Development in Rural Coastal Washington

While wheat and apple commodities dominated the rolling hills of the plateau and eastern valleys of the Cascades, “soft fruits and berries, vegetables both for market consumption and for seed, and flower bulbs were specialties concentrated for the most part in the most fertile sections of western Washington (382).” Because of their proliferation, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries,

became the leading horticultural crop around Puyallup, where growers were leagued in a cooperative association of 1500 members. Early shipments were expressed to the nearest markets or moved in refrigerator cars to Spokane and western Montana. Long-distance shipping as far east as Minneapolis was possible only with the most careful handling, inspection, and grading: berries of poor quality went to local canneries (382).

On the western side of the Cascades the climate and soil were similar enough that in areas such as “Bellingham, Lynden, Woodland and Puyallup, where the earth was a well-drained sandy loam and where rainfall was adequate and distributed throughout the year,” the berry, seed and flower bulb industries proliferated (ibid). By 1912 the Skagit Valley Seed Growers Corporation organized 100 farmers to provide seed and seedlings to a national market made possible through an entrepreneurial marketing campaign. In fact, there is evidence that consumer demand for most of Washington’s agricultural commodities for export was driven in these early years primarily by advertising and marketing made possible as discussed above by the commodity fetishism of agricultural products.

There is no doubt that technological development helped emerging farming corporations meet the artificially driven demand for their products from the beginning of the growth of the agricultural industry in Washington State. This growth was not unbridled. From the beginning, labor shortages resulted from labor disputes over pay, living conditions, poor treatment, working through poor weather conditions and because of competition between established workers and Immigrant workers.

Justly this was the location where in 2013 a group of 450 farm workers rose up against very similar conditions as their predecessors that I was able to witness and document at Sakuma Bros Farm that serves as the second case study for this dissertation.

2.7       Land Reclamation and the Intensification of Capitalist Agriculture in Rural Eastern Washington

It is easy to ignore the role of the state in creating the corporate food regime that we live under if you do not refer to history. Land reclamation and the development through capitalist mega-projects of irrigation, transportation and affordable electricity due to the massive hydro-electric projects in Eastern Washington led directly to the development of this type of violent agriculture in the region. An act of Congress set the wheels in motion of the next great transformation of agricultural production in eastern Washington. Through the Carey Act  of 1894, the federal government transferred large tracts of land “from the public domain to the jurisdiction of the states if states would see that they were reclaimed. The states then signed contracts with individuals or commercial companies to construct and operate the necessary systems” (Johansen 388). J.V. Palerm (2014), citing Paul Taylor documented the transformation of the imperial valley in California much the same way (J.V. Palerm, 2014, 70).

A failure at first, Washington State was only able to approve the Yakima Valley project that was contracted to the Washington Irrigation Company at the beginning, this expanded later to a project on the Okanogan River in North Central Washington. These projects made available irrigation to orchards of what was considered then and a hundred years later continues to be known as Washington’s apple belt. A total of 7,700 acres west of the Okanogan River and over 450,000 acres in south-central Washington were brought into production by 1910 because of the Carey Act (396-397).

In areas where there were no major irrigation projects at the turn of the 20th century, production continued on a small scale. In Walla Walla County, Blalock Fruit Company was the largest producer and landowner in 1904 with a 400 acre orchard that produced, “300 carloads of fruits and vegetables; 100 alfalfa; 20 T jelly; 180 barrels of cider; 1,600 cases of honey and a large number of hogs and cattle (Locati 56).” Walla Walla County as a whole produced only 1,500 carloads of fruits and vegetables in that same period. As early as 1897, Blalock Fruit Company “was already a five-member, multi-faceted fruit industry corporation ” and by 1917 employed 250 farmworkers during harvest (57-8). This large-scale agricultural endeavor was made possible because of water rights to existing springs and later artesian wells. The use of these wells made early industrialized farming possible in the region until their overuse made the wells lose pressure over time. At that point the irrigation mega-projects became essential in the industrial farming that emerged in the region.

As early as 1909, land use was shifting from wheat production to fruit production because of the availability of water via privately funded reclamation ventures. One report exclaimed, “It has been shown that apples were growable in every draw with a stream nearby, bottomlands, up slopes, in dryland wheatland that could be bought for as little as $140 per acre and would soon be worth $3,000 (62).” By 1910 that price jumped by another $1,000 and thus much of the regions early wealth resulted from land speculation.

As a result of the land rush, by 1911 “50,000 acres of fruit land in the immediate vicinity of Walla Walla [were] now available for fruit farming (ibid).” As one would expect, the speculation led to increased fruit growing in the region in the beginning, but Locati cautions, “there were to be many disappointments,” he said “publicity and propaganda slacked off” as the original land holders sold their land at great profits and were no longer invested in the affairs of their previous holdings. Moreover the region had “been hit hard, with pests and diseases, making the removal of much orchard land imperative—voluntarily because of financial disappointment; or by law to protect those orchardists taking care of their places” (66). These pest management and irrigation crises and policies that followed allowed large corporations to dominate the industry in eastern Washington even at that time.

One of the larger firms in Walla Walla that began on a tract of land that was about 424 acres “changed from the Langdon Orchard to the Baker-Langdon Orchard…It was reportedly the largest apple planting in one block in the world (65).” By 1915 this orchard came to produce 500 acres of apples and was irrigated by the Cottonwood Creek that ran through the property (ibid).

By January 1911 spraying became compulsory in Walla Walla, fruit inspectors were introduced to curb the sale of wormy and defective apples and entire orchards that did not conform were uprooted. As a result of regulation by 1913 the cost of preparing a box of apples for market went up to 67 cents because a market shortage was created as inspectors turned back wagonloads of fruit. By 1918 fines of $25 and arrests were made primarily against Italian farmers for the sale of wormy or scaly apples. The regulation resulted in a new market, by 1923 poor quality “apples are selling for 18 cents per apple box to cider and vinegar mills” which led to the rise of food processing in the region (68). These processing plants were fed by over 3,103 acres in production in Walla Walla. In the 1920s the business of cider and vinegar processing thrived likely due to a higher demand in the region because of prohibition. Locati reports that fruit trees planted in 1910 reached production maturity as “picking, packing and shipping operations ran as fast as market conditions warranted” (71). Even with the increase in mature orchard to market operations of the 1920s, farmers in eastern Washington were unable to attain the sufficiency and consistency of industrial production. Even with new pesticide technology and laws that favored larger orchards, these early agricultural giants could not predict the weather and unlike California, the labor pool in the region was small and unskilled.

Locati notes that frost damage was a particular problem, the Blalock corporation for example, established a “frost station” in 1925 and large growers engineered heaters in an attempt to escape frost damage close to market, small operations who could not afford to engineer or purchase heaters faced heavy damage (71). Locati, an Italian farm worker himself at the time, notes of the labor supply during the 1920s

there was no migrant Chicano or similar help. Some professional pickers and packers were attracted here…but most of the picking was done with local help. Whole families, including kids, did much of the picking, especially of prunes…I started picking prunes at age 12 with a cousin one year older as a partner…the family unit often included females, with the father doing the heavy work (71-72).

From the beginning of agricultural development in Washington State, the family unit of production was central to bringing in the harvest. The exploitation, living conditions, and the hardships of the great depression that these farm workers would experience in the next decade would greatly shape the destiny of labor relations on these farms through the next century, as farm workers like Locati would become growers and base their treatment of new farm workers upon their own experiences of suffering and fear of radical social change from groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

World War II and multiple Acts of Congress beginning in 1946 brought an end to much of the advances made by the IWW in the preceding decade in Agriculture. The introduction of the Bracero program, a wartime initiative to contract indentured labor from Mexico to harvest crops was extended by Acts of Congress through 1964. During wartime Mexican braceros were much more likely to strike in the Pacific Northwest than in the U.S. Southwest, mostly because they were relegated to work in the most labor intensive jobs such as the sugar beets, were often reallocated to dangerous jobs such as fighting forest fires, and being required to work in harsh weather. What drove many workers to strike however, was the blow against their dignity linked to the standard arrangements of indentured labor, limits to their mobility (growers kept workers identification), poor living arrangements, low quality food, and low wages that were taxed for providing all of the above.

The first Bracero labor strikes in Washington state, poetically speaking, started in Burlington, Washington in Skagit County and in Dayton, Washington in Walla Walla County in 1943 (Gamboa 80; Garcia & Garcia 85-128). Very close to where the case studies for this dissertation were based. The four major agricultural producing regions of Washington State: the Yakima Valley, Skagit Valley, Columbia Basin and the Wenatchee Valley would be strife with powerful labor struggles at large agricultural corporations well into the next century. Together, they would shape the development of Washington agriculture by institutionalizing the unnecessary perpetuation of a settler colonialist frontier mentality in farming in the form of federal entitlements, aid, policy and militarized policing and enforcement of warehoused labor communities.


2.8       The Columbia Basin Reclamation Project

New technology saw that the development of the Columbia and Snake River for irrigation. Similar in scale to the Colorado River project that produced the Hoover Dam to power and water California’s rural and urban landscapes (Reisner, 1993; J.V. Palerm, 2014). The damming of the two rivers in the Pacific Northwest established latifundia as the dominant mode of agriculture export production in Washington. The slack water transportation system, for example, created on the Columbia and Snake Rivers linked inland Washington, Idaho and Oregon to Pacific Rim markets and by extension the growing world economy. The river’s development destroyed Native American centennial fishing grounds in the region, diminishing their strongest ties to their ancestral land, it created slack water that allowed the rivers to be used as shipping lanes, generated hydro-electricity, and created reservoirs that could be utilized to irrigate once arid swaths of land and cool nuclear reactors at the Hanford Reservation.

Even as far back as 1920, the Columbia Basin Survey Commission warned of land speculation, “it is probable that unless very careful supervision and strict control are exercised to prevent residence upon the land in advance of the availability of water, premature settlement may take place” (Columbia Basin Survey Commission 1920: 33). Despite the warning, such an opportunity once again brought a rush of investors trying to cash in upon the promise of new wealth secured by the infrastructure made possible by federal subsidies in the continuation of a settler colonialist practice, this after the Homestead Act and the Railroad allotments that preceded it were the foundation of the existence of latifundia into the 21st century.

The transformation of agricultural development in Washington State grew proportionally to the completion of dam projects supported by reclamation funding and as farms grew, they drew labor from pre-existing migrant labor routes and took advantage of the mica program that allowed former braceros and undocumented Mexican workers able to secure a mica to return to the same employer with legal residency. These were the precursors of what Walter Goldschmidt discussed as the problem of urbanization or rural societies that he documented in California, only in eastern Washington, it began to occur thirty years after and was most notable by the 1960s as early irrigation projects began to pool labor in places such as the Yakima Valley as sugar beet processing centers owned by the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company was reopened in Toppenish and operated from 1937 until 1966, allowing for year round work for some farmworkers, including my grandfather Rafael Pacheco (Arrington, 1966,119-120).

The Yakima Project began in 1906 (Maldonado 1995, 94). It was part of the first wave of reclamation irrigation projects that increased the acreage in the Yakima Valley by 1910 (Ibid, 95). Sizeable labor pools appeared throughout the Yakima Valley agricultural belt beginning in the 1960s. Many of these enclaves had their start at labor camps such as the Crewport labor camp near present day Sunnyside, Washington. Small cities including Yakima, Washington experienced urbanization in terms of growth over the next twenty years as processing plants clustered near Toppenish, Washington offering year round work to many of the migrant farm workers who had settled. The region was primarily dedicated to hops, wine grapes and tree fruit crops but also labor-intensive crops such as asparagus. A second wave of reclamation irrigation projects was completed after WWII (Ibid). The Columbia Basin and Snake River Projects considerably increased the farming acreage in the Columbia Basin as they were completed by the mid 1970s (Ibid). This availability of land made Broetje Orchards 5,000 acre contiguous conventional orchard and their accompanying processing centers and cooling sheds and company town possible in this region because it provided subsidized irrigation and affordable electricity for these endeavors.

The availability of irrigation also changed the types of crops that could be grown in the region and technological advancements the intensity of production. The Tri-Cities Metropolitan region became urbanized by the 1990s and its principle crops were labor-intensive crops like asparagus, onions, orchard and vineyard crops. In neighboring Walla Walla County, the damming of the Snake River and pumping and reservoir technology transformed former wheatland and cattle range run by small family farmers and ranchers into massive corporate agricultural circle irrigation farms, vineyards and orchards. These farms drew their labor from nearby labor pool anchor cities such as the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla.

2.9       The Post-Reclamation transformation of rural Washington

By 2007, Washington State supported a total of 39,284 farms.[1] The average size of a farm was 381 acres.[2] This means that by 2007 the average farm in Washington was a large-scale operation. In regards to corporate agriculture, Washington is the third largest fruit producing state in the United States averaging a total of 11.2% of the total sales of fruits, nuts and berries for a value of $2.1 billion in 2007.[3]

Washington agricultural firms employed an average of 91,700 workers in 1998. Though there is a dual peak harvest season with orchard crops, the intensification of farm production has created close to year round work for some of the folks involved in capitalist agriculture. According to Carlos S. Maldonado (1995, 98), “Agricultural work is year round in Washington. As the year proceeds from January to December various work is done ranging from pruning trees in January to harvesting the various crops in peak season. Twin peak seasons happens in July and again in October”. This cycle influences the demand for seasonal agricultural labor in Washington State in July and October, but the availability of year-round agricultural work also encourages the settlement and integration of migrant farm workers into rural society.

Even though there is an availability of some year-round agricultural work, the demand for labor peaks during the dual harvest seasons for cherries and apples. According to the Washington State Employment Security Department 16,998 seasonal workers were hired in July to harvest cherries and 53,778 seasonal workers were hired in October to harvest apples in 1998 (Thilmany, 2001, 2-3). It is because of this twin peak season that Washington remains “a primary destination point in the western migration stream due to its large demand for seasonal farm workers during the fall months, when Texas and California producers require less labor” (Ibid, 3). In many ways the intensification of cherry and apple farming, because of their requirement of close to year-round work in this industry, has led to increased settlement of migrant workers in the apple and cherry growing regions in Washington State. As described above, these urbanized rural enclaves tend to be located around reclamation projects in North Central Washington (Wenatchee Valley) and Central Washington (Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin).

In 2007, Washington State’s farmers and ranchers produced $8.3 billion in food and agricultural products. This places the Evergreen State as the 12th largest producer in the United States. 

Nearly $9.3 billion in food and agricultural products were exported through Washington ports in 2007, the third largest total in the U.S. The figure includes agricultural commodities, primarily grains, sourced from other states that were exported from Washington ports.

Chapter Conclusions

The transformation of agricultural production in rural Washington State from grain farming towards large-scale corporate agricultural fruit and vegetable farming as with the case of California (McWilliams 108), was a direct result of a rapid increase in population with the completion of rail lines in the context of 1850’s gold rushes, the resulting pooling of labor, and the draw from a seasonally compatible mobile labor force in the early to mid 20th Century from the U.S. South, California and Mexico facilitated by the invention of the automobile and development of U.S. roadways.

In the 21st century, Washington State Agricultural firms continue to depend upon this awkward class of mobile working families from the U.S. and global South to bring in the harvests with skill and speed. The trend of warehousing seasonal farm labor pools in rural areas, coupled with a move by larger firms towards intensification of production, vertical integration and diversification of holdings in their corporate organization has simultaneously led to higher profits for said agricultural corporations and on the underside the perpetuation late 19th century working conditions reminiscent of the plight of peasants working on haciendas, slaves on plantations, and California’s urban poor from colonias yet not the same.

Monopoly agriculture in Washington State has followed the lead of multi-national agri-corporations within the global capitalist economy that dominate the fresh fruit and vegetable industry worldwide. These firms, including many based in California, produce in both the northern and southern hemispheres in order to offer the same specialized commodity year round, thus holding monopoly control on the market that was literally unheard of 30 years ago.

Not yet there, the two firms that I chose to study are well on their way in the direction of California firms. Sakuma Brothers Farms sources fruit to one such California based transnational company, Driscoll’s, a transnational agricultural corporation which sources berries from all over the world, including Mexico’s Baja California in order to source berries year round for a global marketplace.[4] Broetje Orchards has an exclusive development arrangement with small growers in Chihuahua, Mexico that promises to provide a source of apples in the future, though at the moment they tend to be destined for processing. A recent crisis and marketing campaign by Chihuahua growers urging Mexican’s to buy Mexican indicates that the fresh market for Chihuahua apples is growing. Thus, I argue that this global trend towards latifundia has not escaped Washington’s agricultural development, but has instead intimately transformed it. Both of the firms that I will describe in the following pages are fully integrated into the larger global economy and are exemplary of this trend in agricultural development.

Were it not for the large sums of capital investment that the U.S. federal government subsidizes both domestic corporate farmers and transnational agricultural corporations; in the form of entitlements, tax subsidies, research and development, quality control, trade policy, transportation infrastructure, and the use of immigration enforcement and community policing in urbanized rural labor warehouse communities to maintain artificially low wages; these fragile enterprises would easily go bankrupt. However, in the logic of U.S. Capitalist short sightedness demonstrated in the management and bail out of the auto, banking, and home mortgage industries, they are simply too large to fail.

When it comes to the organization of corporations into vertically integrated firms and to the pooling and policing of Mexican labor linked to the urbanization of rural areas this transformation is occurring simultaneously. I will further explore these developments through the examination of the organization of two such Tree fruit and Berry producing firms Broetje Orchards and Sakuma Brothers Farm and the diverse communities of Mexican workers that have helped shape the development of these firms through labor power, strife and very peculiar and often contradictory compromises.

[1] USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Table 1” of 2007 CENSUS OF AGRICULTURE – STATE DATA – Full Report, Volume 1, Chapter 2, http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_US_State_Level/st99_2_001_001.pdf, Accessed July 24, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] USDA, 2007 Census of Agriculture, “Fruits, Berries and Tree Nuts” Fact Sheet, http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Fact_Sheets/fbn.pdf, Accessed July 24, 2011.

[4] See Marcos F. Lopez, “Places in Production: Nature, Farm Work and Farm Worker Resistance in U.S. and Mexican Strawberry Growing Regions,” Unpublished Dissertation, University of California Santa Cruz, June 2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s