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Nov 29th
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Growing History

blog_slugUCSC library to launch an online oral history of organic farming

Dale Coke grew up on an apricot orchard in California’s Santa Clara Valley. In 1976 he bought 10 acres of farmland near Watsonville in Santa Cruz County but continued to work repairing fuel injection systems rather than farming at his new home. In 1981, a struggle with cancer inspired him to rethink his life and become an organic farmer. His neighbor, who had grown strawberries using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, asserted that strawberries could not be grown organically. Coke set out to prove him wrong.

Coke—who did, in fact, prove he could grow organic strawberries (and sell them to places like Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley), is just one of the many sustainable agriculture pioneers documented by UC Santa Cruz’s Regional History Project in “Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History Series on Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Farming on California’s Central Coast.” The Regional History Project’s Director, Irene Reti, came up with the idea to interview local individuals and organizations that played a major role in the development of organic farming and sustainable food systems. “[The oral history office]’s mission is to document the history of not only UCSC but of this entire region,” says Reti. “Sustainable agriculture is one of the major contributions that this area has made both national and internationally so it just stood out as something we wanted to document.”

The project examines the past 50 years of the sustainable agriculture movement in Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. It includes interviews with large- and small-scale farmers and a host of farm advisors, activists, educators, researchers, policymakers, Farmers’ Market managers, and food distributors—58 in all. “We started out thinking we were going to interview 15 people and we ended up with 58,” laughs Reti.

Transcripts of the interviews, audio clips from the oral histories, and photographs will all be available on the UCSC Library’s website ( on April 22, and can be sorted by narrator, organization, and role (farmers, activists, researchers, etc.). The site also offers a Google Map with the locations of the participants and a timeline listing key events in Central Coast organic and sustainable agriculture in the context of historical events and trends in the international movement.

In addition to the website, the UCSC Library will feature an exhibit based on the project in the fall. Transcripts of the interviews and photos that are on the website are also available in printed volumes through several local libraries, including the UCSC Library. To purchase copies of some or all of the volumes, or to learn more, email Irene at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . A book of edited excerpts from the oral histories will be published in 2011 by the UCSC Library and distributed by the University of California press.

Photo: JP Perez of JP Organics poses with a bounty of his fresh, organic produce. Credit: Gerry McIntyre


Comments (1)Add Comment
Chief Gardener on my private plot
written by Francis Smith, January 22, 2014
This collection serves a valuable purpose in tracing the history of the organic farming and gardening movement from its beginnings in California. Many of the contrlibutions are careful and accurate descriptions of the struggles that were necessary to begin looking at farming in a new way. Others, unfortunately, suffer from inaccuracies and distortions that marr the whole effort.In particular, I take exception to the misleading statements made by some of the interviewees about the role and character of the most important figure in the organic movement, Alan Chadwick. In particular, Orin Martin, Richard Merrill, and Steve Kaffka provide less than reliable information about Mr. Chadwick. For a good look at the other side of the story, see the following website:

Alan Chadwick

The section on "Memories of Alan Chadwick" has commentaries on the interviews of these three persons, as well as by many others who knew him.

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