Carlisle-Cummins, Ildi . "Confessions of an Accidental Researcher: Reflecting on the Production of the Cal Ag Roots Story Series." PUBLIC: a Journal of Imagining America 5, no. 1 (2018).
Confessions of an Accidental Researcher: Reflecting on the Production of the Cal Ag Roots Story Series


This article reflects on the Cal Ag Roots Project’s relationship with research in general and then dives into a specific exploration of the methods behind the production of one of our podcasts, There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup. This podcast is particularly relevant for this issue of Public because it tells a key story about an interaction between a land-grant university (UC Davis) and the farming, farmworker, and nascent food-movement organizing communities in the surrounding region. My aim is to reveal some of the inner workings of our story production process in order to ask some key questions about how we produce original research—and, hopefully, to open up a new Cal Ag Roots conversation with the academic community.

When I launched the Cal Ag Roots project at the California Institute for Rural Studies in 2015, I had a couple of major motivations. First, I wanted to shake up the California food movement’s understanding of farming history in our state so that we would stop replicating past injustices and wasting energy on efforts that didn’t address structural problems with the agricultural system. Second, I wanted to lift up stories from voices that were seldom heard in the places where food movement conversations were happening. To do that, I produce the Cal Ag Roots podcast, which shares researcher perspectives that don’t often make it out of academic circles along with insights from people who lived through key moments in California farming whose stories are being lost to history. I’ve spent the last three years focused on those two priorities, but my recent interactions with Imagining America have pushed me to do some new thinking about the methods and theory behind the work that I do.

This article reflects on the Cal Ag Roots project’s relationship with research in general and then dives into a specific exploration of the methods behind the production of one of our podcasts, "There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup." This podcast is particularly relevant for this issue of Public because it tells a key story about an interaction between a land-grant university (UC Davis) and the farming, farmworker, and nascent food-movement organizing communities in the surrounding region. My aim is to reveal some of the inner workings of our story production process in order to ask some key questions about how we produce original research—and, hopefully, to open up a new Cal Ag Roots conversation with the academic community.


Part One: Towards Research-Engaged Practice

I have always considered myself a nerd. For a first-grade report on penguins, my dad took me to the Philadelphia zoo to interview the penguin keeper. I must have been seven or eight when my grandma hissed at me, “You ask too many questions!” after I wouldn’t stop probing her about why she went shopping on the same day every week. Once I had to use the compasses painted on the floor of my college library to guide me out of the stacks when I got lost moving from shelf to shelf as one book referenced another. As a graduate student, the wall of my office slowly filled with Post-it note quotes, questions, images, and maps all linked together with arrows until it looked like the investigation board in a crime drama.

Although I knew I was curious, I never considered myself a researcher. And the fact that I might be one didn’t occur to me, even after completing the Community and Regional Development master’s program at UC Davis and pitching a project—Cal Ag Roots—to the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), an institution with a 40-year track record of conducting independent research. Cal Ag Roots, I said, would put historical roots under current California food and farming change movements by telling the story of California agricultural development in innovative, useful, and relevant ways.

There is deep knowledge about the structures, driving forces, and key moments that have shaped California’s food system among recognized “experts” and those who have participated in the creation of CA farming, but this knowledge doesn’t always inform food-movement work. In my vision, Cal Ag Roots would be about translating research, bringing the work of paid thinkers at universities into conversation with the California food movement through storytelling. This movement has porous boundaries that expand and contract depending on who is defining it, but I often use the broadest definition of my audience, reaching out to anyone who is working to shift California farming towards justice, ecological sustainability, and economic health.

Started in the late 1960s, the California food movement has been broad, encompassing everything from the promotion of ecological farming practices to the development of urban gardens to policy work that prioritizes the purchase of locally grown foods by government institutions. At times, the food movement has also intersected with other movements, fighting for the rights of farmworkers during the 1965–1970 United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, for example, and aligning with the environmental movement to remove pesticides and herbicides from fields through organic production (see Bibliography for a short list of works on the history of California farming). I imagined myself as a kind of matchmaker and host, pairing the energetic, often idealistic folks trying to change the food system in these various ways with the group of people studying that system.

The Executive Director at CIRS, Gail Wadsworth, knew differently. As we worked together, she slowly started using the term “research” more and more to describe the process of crafting Cal Ag Roots stories. She knew that research doesn’t have to be spelled with a capital “R,” but comes in a variety of forms that are much broader than the academy typically acknowledges. That’s why she thought that a project like mine belonged at CIRS.

In graduate school, I hung out with a group of people trying to break the research mold—some of them calling themselves “community-engaged scholars.” The way they conducted research valued participatory action, community-led research projects, and the coproduction of knowledge with community members. As I listened in on conversations about how to do this type of research, I wondered what types of “community members” might be ready and willing to work with university researchers. It seemed like there was a crucial partner to every community-engaged scholar that received little attention in methods literature: a character that I started calling the “research-engaged practitioner.”

When I graduated, I put myself—and the Cal Ag Roots project—squarely in that role. I was aiming to be an organizer for change with the skills and newly acquired vocabulary to navigate the world of research. I now knew how to find researchers who were ferreted away in book-filled offices across UC campuses and my plan was to tell others how to find them, too. The food movement, I hoped, would learn more about the forces that drive California farming and researchers would study more questions relevant to creating a just, healthy food system for the twenty-first century. This seemed particularly important work to be done at a land-grant university with a public mandate like UC Davis.

While Cal Ag Roots does plenty of this dialogue sparking between researchers and community organizers, I also unknowingly ended up backing into a role as a researcher. Cal Ag Roots uses audio storytelling as a primary tool and the tape we’ve collected comes from interviews with dozens of researchers, writers, historians, and people with lived experiences of the key historical moments we cover. Producing these stories has led me to kitchen tables in farmhouses, but it’s also led me to libraries and archives. Each story attempts to bridge the gap between researchers and organizers, bringing their voices into conversation and blurring the line between activists and academics. And, maybe unsurprisingly, I’ve found that distinction getting fuzzier in my thinking about my own identity, too.

It wasn’t until the Imagining America Conference in Davis in September of 2017 that I fully accepted the aspects of Cal Ag Roots work that are research-based. As part of a multimedia conference session, Aubrey Thompson and I performed a Cal Ag Roots podcast called "There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup." Aubrey was a coproducer of the podcast and an important partner for this story, since she worked at the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, which has its roots in the conflict at the center of this story. The Imagining America community of scholars recognized the live performance of the podcast for what it was: public scholarship that engaged the Davis and Central Valley communities who are living in a landscape transformed by this story.

What follows is a first attempt to share a description of the Cal Ag Roots research process with a community of scholars by focusing on one particular podcast.


Part Two: Unearthing the Story of the UC Davis Invention that Launched the California Food Movement

The first Cal Ag Roots podcast, "There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup," tells the story of the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester, achieved at UC Davis, which was an incredible feat of engineering that had tremendous impacts on the tomato industry. Today, the mechanical tomato harvester allows California’s Central Valley to play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply.

On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with the type of gourmet cuisine California is known for, but a backlash to the machine’s invention among activists sparked the early California food movement. When it was released, in 1964, the machine put tens of thousands of farmworkers and 95% of tomato farmers out of work and led to national debates about the role of land-grant universities in developing industry-altering technologies that benefit a select few. Our ketchup podcast drew on research by sociologist Bill Friedland, economist David Runsten, social critic Jim Hightower, cultural studies scholar Carolyn Thomas, independent social scholar Don Villarejo, and environmental activist Elizabeth Martin. We also explored the tomato harvester archive at the UC Davis Library. The story was coproduced by the activist Bill Hoerger, who brought a lawsuit against the University of California at the time of the tomato harvester’s release.

The story of the tomato harvester raises key questions that are particularly relevant to the relationship between UC Davis and agricultural communities across California. These include:

What kinds of problems should agricultural research teams of today be solving? Where are the holes in current research agendas—and where are the blind spots in our understanding of the impacts of agricultural technologies?
What does the land grant university’s mandate to “serve the public good” mean for agricultural research agendas today?
How can Californians, both inside and outside of the university, work together to solve problems with the current farming system?


Some of the California food movement’s oldest institutions—the UC Sustainable Agriculture and Research Program and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, to name just two examples—were born out of the organizing in the wake of the tomato harvester’s release and continue to be based in Davis.

While there are numerous stories told about California agriculture, they frequently adhere to strict ideologies—praising the ingenuity of the system or decrying its negative impacts. This tendency to “take sides” when discussing agriculture has led entrenched camps of advocates to lock into their current positions and staunchly defend them. Nuanced dialogue is urgently needed, so Cal Ag Roots creates a variety of accessible resources that tell stories in relevant, thought-provoking, and innovative ways. The aim is for Cal Ag Roots audiences to come away with a deeper understanding of how major driving forces have shaped the development of California farming, how pivotal moments and key decisions related to those forces have changed the course of our agricultural industry, and how history is actively shaping current and future farming practices.

The production of each Cal Ag Roots story follows a similar research process. First, stories are identified through a survey of literature on a driving force in California farming, as well as through conversations with the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council (comprised of a mix of academics and community scholars) and other experts. Second, I conduct a series of preliminary interviews of academics who have studied the story subject and of people with direct personal connections to the story. Through these conversations, I identify a story coproducer who has lived experience related to the story’s content. Then, I visit relevant archives, if they exist, to further deepen our understanding of the story. Lastly, we conduct taped audio interviews with story experts so that we can stitch together nuanced podcasts that reflect multiple perspectives on each story. Each of our stories combines scholarly analysis and reflection with personal testimony from voices that are not typically heard. These stories, therefore, are explored from multiple angles, and combine a discussion of historical trends with the experiences of individuals who lived through—and built—that history, which is why we recruit a coproducer with personal connections to each story.

Our stories are structured around the following driving forces in California farming: labor, land tenure, climate, water, waves of immigrant cultures, and science/technology. While lifetimes of study and volumes of text have been dedicated to understanding any one of these forces, Cal Ag Roots attempts to make these forces understandable to a wide audience by tracking turning points when things changed course or pressures were exerted on the California agricultural system. Each of our stories describes a pivotal moment in history when it looked like the “jig was up” for California agriculture-as-usual.

Cal Ag Roots stories are built on a theoretical framework that uses political economy, cultural studies, and environmental history lenses to explore key moments in California agricultural development. First, we use a political economic model to trace structures and patterns in California agriculture, noting exceptions to those patterns that signal possible leverage points for change. Digging down a layer, we trace conflicts that yield surprising results and reveal agency among actors who resist structural forces. Pushing past embattled relationships to think about individual and group motivations, we search for ways that the quest for authority determines how agricultural practices are labeled and develop. This requires a plunge into three layers of analysis for each historical moment that we discuss. The lens that is formed when each of these analytical methods are synchronized doesn’t bring a simple story into focus, but instead paints a rich picture of the way the California food system works. Politics, economics, relationships, and personal motivations blend to provide layers and perspective—and to reveal that our current agricultural system was not predestined, but built by a complex process of negotiation between people, land, and political systems. Using key historical moments as tools for understanding patterns, leverage points, strategies for change, conflicts, exceptions, and individual motivations complicates and confounds.

The stories we collect and tell allow us to share deep emotional ties, sadness, success, meaning, and purpose. They allow people within the agricultural industry and outside of it to find common ground, order our world, and create change. And, I now see, Cal Ag Roots stories work in a middle ground between community organizing and research, weaving between the worlds of community-engaged scholarship and research-engaged practice. Last confession: I’m hoping this raises more questions!


Figure 1: "There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup" podcast.
Podcast produced by Ildi Carlisle-Cummins and Aubrey Thompson for the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies.


If you’d like to hear more Cal Ag Roots stories, please visit our story hub at You can also find Cal Ag Roots podcasts on iTunes or your preferred podcast app. We hope you’ll tune in—and tell us what you think!



Cal Ag Roots draws on a range of publications that detail the history of California farming. A few key works are:

Arax, Mark, and Rick Wartzman. 2005. The King of California: JG Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire. New York: Public Affairs.

Fitzgerald, Deborah. 2003. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

García, Matt. 2012. From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Guthman, Julie. 2004. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jelenik, Lawrence J. 1979. Harvest Empire: A History of California Agriculture. San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser.

Walker, Richard A. 2004. The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. New York: The New Press.

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