Give Now  »

wfiu logo
WFIU Public Radio

wtiu logo
WTIU Public Television

Choose which station to support!

Indiana Public Media | WFIU - NPR | WTIU - PBS

Strawberry Fields, Maybe Not Forever

Read Transcript
Hide Transcript


[Them music]

From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I’m Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats. 

And if I look back at all of my research, I think that, I find myself really drawn to paradoxes and contradictions and impossibilities. 

KY:  This week on our show we speak with Julie Guthman, a food scholar who has never been afraid to challenge the conventional thinking on any topic she has tackled. We’ll talk with her today about her research on the strawberry industry. 

And it’s pesto time! If you’re growing Basil or purchasing it from local growers, now is the time to get to the kitchen and make some pesto. It freezes really well, so you can make extra to enjoy in the colder months ahead. We’ve got a recipe coming up later in the show so stay with us.

[music fades out]

Here's Renee Reed with the news

Hi Renee

RR: Hello Kayte

Birds are losing weight and time during migration, thanks to the world’s most widely used pesticide. A study published this week in the journal Science found songbirds that ate the equivalent of one or two seeds treated with neonicotinoids--a class of pesticides also known as neo-nics--exhibited decreased appetite and lost weight within hours, forcing the birds to delay their migratory journey. Pesticides are introduced to plants at the seed stage, and spring bird migration occurs when farmers in the US and Canada are planting. Migrating birds may be exposed to neonicotinoids at multiple sites where they rest and feed, extending migration delays that could ultimately lead to reduced migration survival and decreased reproductive success, according to the study. Neonicotinoids are also found to have adverse effects on bees in some places, and a 2014 study in the journal Nature indicates a decline in birds that eat insects affected by neonicotinoids. The European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 because they were killing pollinators.

RR: Protesters have descended on Minneapolis in recent weeks to demonstrate against agribusiness juggernaut Cargill, which is based near the city. They are drawing attention to the company’s use of soybeans from Brazil and other countries clearing rainforest and savanna for the grain trade. Fires in the Amazon during one week this summer increased 84 percent compared to the last dry season as farmers set fires to clear land for crops and cattle pastures. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed for more private and commercial use of rainforest and other land that had previously been protected. At the vanguard of protests against Cargill is Mighty Earth, a group founded by former California representative Henry Waxman. Earlier this month, the presidents of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Suriname signed an “Amazon Pact” to increase cooperation in the Amazon. Bolsonaro did not attend.

Watchdogs are connecting the dots between President Trump’s trade war with China, the world’s biggest soybean buyer, and increased land clearing in the Amazon as a way to meet soybean demand the U.S. no longer provides. A Chinese state-owned oilseed and food company, COFCO, announced last month that it would buy 25 percent more soybeans from Brazil over the next five years and spend 60 million dollars to help Brazilian farmers expand.

[news music fades in]

That’s our food news for this week, thanks to Taylor Killough and Chad Bouchard for those stories.

KY: And thanks to you, Renee Reed

RR: No problem, Kayte.

[news theme fades out]

JG:  My Name is Julie Guthman.  I'm a professor of social sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz.

KY:  Julie Guthman is a food scholar whose work has had a profound effect on much of my thinking about alternative food movements. Her 2011 book Weighing In challenges common approaches to the so-called obesity epidemic and has pushed me to examine the limits of interventions such as school gardens and farmers’ markets in transforming our food system. Julie Guthman visited the IU campus in the spring and gave a keynote address at a conference called Critical Approaches to Superfoods. I invited her to the studio to talk about her recent work. 

JG:  The talk I'm giving is called The problem with solutions and it's really motivated by this tendency I've seen, certainly in the tech industry but also in kind of low tech versions of efforts to transform food so it reflects on this tendency to have solutions guide the problem so we're so many people come up with solutions that are politically palatable or excite them from farmer's market to drones to monitor fields and go looking for kind o problems to be solved.  So I have a new project on agriculture and food technology and I've been going to all sorts of events where entrepreneurs are looking for venture capital to fund their inventions that are about new food products, new products to help farmers farm and I'm constantly struck about how little some of these entrepreneurs seem to understand about the nature of food and agriculture.

KY:  Her latest book, released this summer, is on the Strawberry industry in California

JG:  The strawberry work, I'm very excited about it, I just completed a book.  It's called 'Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry and it's a culmination of maybe five years of research on the California strawberry industry and what this book does is address how it is that the strawberry industry became so wedded to the use of highly toxic soil fumigants and how that use of fumigants ramified throughout the rest of the industry making it really really difficult to change and it's animated by the problem that one of the many problems that the strawberry industry is facing that the chemicals that they've long been using are now facing tighter regulation. 

The issue with these chemicals is they were first introduced to address a suite of soil-based problems. Nematoads, weeds but mainly soil born pathogens and these pathogens early on in California strawberry were hurting growers. They were seeing huge waves of blight where they were losing lots of crops and the University of California got involved in trying to support farmers to address these pathogens and they first developed a breeding program but some in the late fifties they started experimenting with various fumigants and they used a combination of methyl-bromide which used to be a fire retardant and chloropicrin which is tear gas and they found that a combination of that addressed the pathogen problem and those two chemicals in combination became the treatment of choice to address to soil pathogens and weeds and much more. But methyl-bromide is an ozone depleter and has been taken off the market because of the Montreal protocol on ozone depleting substances and chloropicrin they're still allowed to use but with much tighter restriction.

But the problem is it's so much of the way strawberries are produced have been developed with the assumption of the availability of those two chemicals to be available so for instance strawberries we often think of it as a seasonal crop like in most parts of the country where they grow strawberries to the extent they still grow them, there may be available on the market for three weeks.  But Californial strawberries are on the market for nine to ten months of the year. There's certain regions of California where you can be harvesting strawberries for at least six if not eight months and you can do it year after year. Those fumigants allowed growers to grow them year after year on the same block so one of the things that happens is land values become calibrated on assumption that you're gonna be able to fumigate and harvest those strawberry plants year after year after year so land values are very high making it very difficult to pay rent unless you're getting that kind of yield.

In addition there's the qualities of land that are really good for strawberries include sandy soils and the highly temperate weather of the coast of California so most of the strawberries are grown within about three miles of the coast. It's cool in the summer because the breezes come off the Pacific Ocean. We call it the natural air conditioning of the Pacific Ocean so summers are actually cool and foggy right by the coast and so for the strawberries it's eternal spring because they don't do well in super hot weather. So you have the advantages of that particular climate are great for the strawberries but it's also where people want to live and so there's a lot of suburban development in these same areas and so that's also putting pressure on land values.

And then another issue you have is that plant breeding has been done with the presumption of fumigation so even though the first plant breeding activities were to try to develop pathogen resistant varities once there was fumigation they no longer had to do that so they started breeding for size, for color, for shipability so they wouldn't perish, for size and color, presumably that's what consumers want.  They didn't breed much for taste except for certain varietals but now you have this problem where these regulations and you can't fumigate with the same the chemicals that have the same efficacy. In addition there's been new pathogens appearing that hadn't been there before so they really need to find some pathogen resistant varietals but they've lost some of the original germplasm like the ancient germplasm that might've been more beneficial so the strawberry genome itself has changed in relationship to the presumption of chemical fumigation.

KY: The Strawberry genome itself has changed. In response to the prevalent use of chemical fumigants.  Before you go racing to the grocery store to stock your freezer with those giant, red, nearly flavorless strawberries--stay tuned. After a short break we’ll be back with Julie Guthman to get her sense of how urgent the strawberry problem really is.

[production support music]

KY: Production support comes from Elizabeth Ruh, enrolled agent providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses and disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying and estate services.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net. Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio.  And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838

[production support music fades out]

KY:We are back with Julie Guthman of UC Santa Cruz, talking about her research on Strawberry growers in California.

KY: How immediate is this problem or crisis or whatever you want to call it for the strawberry industry?  Are they having to make these changes right now or are we not going to see as many strawberries on the shelves?  Like what's happening now and how quickly do they need to move and what kind of solutions are coming up? 

JG:  well that's a great question. The strawberry industry is facing a number of crises. It includes tighter regulation. It includes these new pathogens that they don't really understand.  It includes labor shortages. Strawberry growers complain about labor shortages more than they even complain about fumigant regulation. It includes high land prices and land scarcity and it includes low prices for strawberries so there's a lot of things bearing down on the strawberry and that strawberry growers like to complain and they do about all of those things.  Already this set of circumstances, strawberry growers are leaving. In the past few years, there's been reductions in acreage so people are like 'I'm out of here. I can't do this anymore.' So that's already happening. Now the kind of solutions. So here we go back to the solutionisms. But this isn't solutionism because there actually is a problem and they are looking for solutions.  So the solutions at hand really vary in terms of who will benefit or be hurt by them and they range from finding and getting approved through regulatory bodies less toxic replacements for these chemicals that's what the strawberry industry most wants because it wouldn't really change up what they do but so far none have been developed that California's department of pesticide regulation is willing to accept so much of the research is in non-chemical alternatives, some biological pesticides too they've been looking at but again none are really ready to go so one thing they're looking at are non-chemical forms of fumigation so like steam.  Steam can kind of work but it's expensive. You have to have steam machines going through and it's very slow. They've also looked at solarization where they just put on plastic but it's not hot enough. I think it works in Israel and in really really hot climates but it's just not hot enough there because you need to have a lot heat to kill the pathogens so the main thing they're looking at has been in the non-chemical treatments has been this thing called anaerobic soil disinfestation where they flood the fields with water and also add a carbon source like rice bran or molasses and cover it in plastic and apparently that creates so much activity that it drowns out the pathogens.  But it's had mixed results, so far no one has really brought it up to scale of several hundred acres, they've done it on a couple acres and it's's not chemical which is good. It's not toxic but it uses a tremendous amount of plastic and water in a drought scored state. We just had a rainy year thankfully but lots of water is not good for California and it's not even clear...the rice bran and molasses where that would come from and that could be grown under very toxic conditions. So there's that one and they're also looking at soil-less substrate. This a really interesting one. This is not taking strawberries quite into greenhouses but as of right now they're putting soil-less substrate as a medium for growing strawberries so it could be coconut coir or peat moss but it's not fertile soil and they put it in waist-high trays which is good for the harvesters.  They don't have to bend over because strawberry picking is really arduous crummy work.

KY:  So it's creating another soil environment that's not ... 

JG:  ...that's not soil but it's still outside because the climate's great so that's exactly thing.  There are now people growing strawberries in greenhouses. New Jersey has a huge house operation for all sorts of fruits and vegetables but the California growers are not so excited about greenhouse operations because they're biggest competitive advantages are the soil, even though it's now diseased and the weather so right they're experimenting in the substrate but this is expensive infrastructure and so there's that and then the third obvious possibility is agro-ecological techniques.  Using rotating strawberries with broccoli. Broccoli has mild fumigation qualities and cover crops and compost and there are organic growers that successfully raise strawberries in these integrated systems but they're not growing strawberries on the same block year after year and they're strawberries are minor crop. And so you can't, they have to find cheaper land or they have to find consumers that are willing to pay a lot more for these strawberries grown in those conditions. Now some in the industry aren't so concerned about these things. They're like 'yeah it's going to cost more and it's fine but it's gonna shake out all these people who really don't know what they're doing-- those of us that really know what we're doing that are the most technologically sophisticated will rise to the top and that'll be fine and we'll just get higher prices which we want anyway.'  I think one of the social justice stories here besides the work which is significant is that some of the newish growers are Latinx growers who were former farm workers or former field managers who had gotten into deep debt to grow strawberries and those are the ones that are turning over year after year ending up with lots and lots of debt. So a shakeout may be good in terms of for some growers but there will be consequences who have tried to get into the strawberry business with a lot less capital.


KY:  Where has this work taken you in terms of your own critical thinking about food systems and where this all fits into some of the other work that you've done.

JG:  If I look back at all of my research I find myself really drawn to paradoxes and contradictions and impossibilities and maybe that's the outcome of having an actively critical mind but I also think it's really reflects what I see on the ground.  And I think that there's so much in food...I mean food has gotten, has galvanized so much public attention. You know there's food studies and food shows and food popular books. We know, food is pervasive as a object of interest and I think that there's...and I don't know if it's an expectation but it's certainly a hope that there's easy solutions to everything and there's really just not and I think thata lot of my work has been empathetically critical of alternatives as a way of addressing food systems by that I mean I want to emphasize, empathetically critical of the farmer's markets and the alternative food institutions and the community gardens and the farm to school programs as not doing enough to address the problems in the food system.  They show us other ways of producing food and possibly other ways consuming food but they don't fundamentally undermine the worst sorts of industrial food and so my project on strawberries has really hit that home for me because I think the agro-ecological techniques of growing strawberries are important to know about and it's important to have techniques that will work but we can't get there unless we fundamentally undermine what is causing growers to continue to fumigate, etc and it includes land values and includes research and extension systems that aren't really developing integrative science. It includes so many different things. It includes huge wealth disparities so I keep on coming back to this same problem in almost all my work in that we cannot really change the food system until we fundamentally address the pervasive problems of equality and insufficient regulation and much more in the world at large. 

KY:  well and this is also an interesting project because it's come about because of regulation.  Like there was some successful regulation that happened in this industry and that's what you want and then here's what it looks like on the ground.

JG:   but the good news is it's forcing growers to have to rethink what they do and so that's how powerful regulation can be so it's important but then you have to develop the tools too farm in other ways but even though these tools are coming available, we have the problem of land values.  We have the problem of consumers expectations of cheap food and not because they're dumb but because that's the economic realities in which they live and that they can't with low wages they need... you know cheap food is one of the way that they have more wages so you can't escape those realities and so while we, those of us who work in food and agriculture need to be certainly thinking about how to address the specific problems we can't kind of move away from really thinking and acting on the bigger social structures. 


KY:  We can’t move away from thinking about the bigger social structures. Julie Guthman never fails to look at the bigger social structures. It’s what’s so powerful about her work. 

We’ll share the second part of our conversation in another episode. Where I ask her about her groundbreaking work in challenging the ways in which the good food movement jumped on the obesity bandwagon and how misguided some of the approaches have been. In the meantime, we have more information on Julie Guthman and her work at Earth Eats dot org. 


KY: Next I have a recipe for early fall when the basil is plentiful, but it won’t be for long. 

Pesto, traditionally is made using a mortar and pestle. And I suppose everyone should try making it that way, once, just so you know what it’s like. But this time of year, I am struggling to keep up with everything in the garden--making hot sauce, canning salsa, making pickles- so I’ll take all the time-saving techniques I can find. We’ll be making pesto in the food processor, but we start off in the garden. It’s late summer.  The basil is flowering so I'm just pinching back the center flowering part of each basil plant and honestly you're the basil a service by cutting all this back because if you leave it to flower, that's pretty much going to be the end of your basil for the season so you wanna be always pinching back those centers to keep the basil going. It's a good time to cut your basil back, harvest a bunch of it and bring it inside, make some pesto.  So then when we get it inside we're gonna wanna put the basil in one of our salad spinners if you've got one. If not you can just rinse it off in a colander. I'm going to be making pesto today to go on a pizza. Later tonight I'm going to go to a friend's house who has just finished building and outdoor brick oven and he's going to be making pizza tonight and I'm gonna make some pesto that we can put on some of those pizzas. Alright, now it's all nice and clean and fairly dry so now we need to just gather up all the rest of the ingredients and put them all into the bowl of a food processor.  So I need to take all of the basil leaves off of the stems. You don't want those really woody stems inside your pesto. We want a total of three cups of basil kind of loosely packed. Everything doesn't have to be exactly measured out but you do want to have a general idea of the proportions and so that's where a recipe comes in handy for something like this. About three cups loosely packed basil leaves. You're just gonna wanna set that aside and then in the bowl of your food processor, you're going to put the garlic, the salt and the pine nuts. So I've got my two cloves of garlic in the food processor and now I'm going to add the pine nuts, three tablespoons of pine nuts.  Next we want to add the salt and I would start wth a teaspoon of salt and then you can adjust later for taste and then we're gonna pulse that until it's finely chopped so we've the garlic, pine nuts and salt in the food processor. Next we'll add the three cups of loosely packed basil leaves and the olive oil and the olive oil I'm just going to pour in to the top of the food processor while it's processing. And that was one half cup of olive oil and now we're gonna add a half cup of parmesan cheese and this is just kind of roughly grated and then we're gonna blend that up. You'll wanna scrape down the sides of your food processor and then as far texture goes it's really up to you.   A lot of people like to have that leafy feeling in their pesto, a lot of people want it velvety smooth almost like a paste so that is up to you. I'm feeling like there's a tiny bit more olive oil in this one than I would like so I would start with a quarter cup and then maybe just add tablespoon at a time until it's the consistency that you want. Now it is time to taste, see if we need to adjust for salt. Mmmm, no I think it's pretty good on salt with the cheese in there it really helps. I also like to add a little bit of lemon juice to mine. I like the acidity and I also feel like it helps keep the brightness of the green basil leaves. Mmm, yeah that's nice. I like the acidity of that lemon juice and I just added half teaspoon, teaspoon, not much.  So that is our basic basil pesto. This is great to put on pasta, of course. Any shape will do. You can spread it on toasts. You can put it on a pizza. 

KY: This recipe, along with so many others, can be found by visiting Earth Eats dot org.  

That’s it for this week, thanks for tuning, we’ll see you next time. 

[theme music]

RR: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.


KY:  Special thanks this week to: Julie Guthman


Production support comes from insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch insurance.  Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage in affiliation with Pekin Insurance.  Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838. Elizabeth Ruh, enrolled agent with Personal Financial Services assisting businesses and individuals with tax preparation and planning for over 15 years.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net and Bill Brown at Griffy Creek studio. Architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy-positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world.  Bill at Griffy creek dot studio


[theme music fades out]

Deep red strawberries filling the frame

In most parts of the country, strawberries are only available 2 or 3 weeks of the year. In some parts of California they can be harvested 8 months of the year. (Sharon Mollerus / Wikimedia Commons)

“If I look back at all of my research, I think that, I find myself really drawn to paradoxes and contradictions and impossibilities.”

This week on our show we speak with Julie Guthman, a food scholar who has never been afraid to challenge the conventional thinking on any topic she has tackled.

Julie Guthman is a professor of Social Sciences at UC Santa Cruz with affiliations in Community Studies, Sociology, Environmental Studies and Feminist Studies. She's the author of Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism, and articles like "Can't Stomach It: How Micheal Pollan et al. Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos."

We’ll talk with her today about her research on the strawberry industry. Her book Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Stawberry Industry was released this summer from The University of California Press. 


And it’s pesto time! If you’re growing Basil or purchasing it from local growers, now is the time to get to the kitchen and make some pesto. It freezes really well, so you can make extra to enjoy in the colder months ahead. We’ve got a recipe.

Stories On This Episode

Make Some Pesto-Freeze Some Pesto


Capture the last breath of summer in a couple of jars of pesto tucked away in your freezer. You'll be grateful to have it for a quick pasta dish on a cold December evening.

Cargill Takes Heat For Amazon Fires


Environmental activists are calling out agribusiness giant Cargill for sourcing soybeans from deforested areas of Brazil and Bolivia, where a push to clear land sparked rainforest fires this summer.

Study Finds Migrating Birds Delayed By Pesticides


A study published in the journal Science found birds that ate just a few seeds treated with neonicotinoids--the world’s most commonly used pesticides--lost weight and migration time, which could ultimately lead to decreased reproductive success.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Earth Eats

Harvest Public Media