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August 8, 2005

Professor Emeritus William Friedland honored for lifetime achievement

By Jennifer McNulty

The first time William Friedland visited UC Santa Cruz in 1968, he didn't even stop the car to look around. The campus was too isolated, he thought.

Photo of William FriedlandLucky for Friedland, UCSC professors quickly set him straight about the opportunities available at the young campus, and he was recruited to join the faculty. Friedland went on to make his mark as founding chair of community studies and a scholar whose research revealed the "cozy" relationship between UC's agricultural researchers and the state's powerful farming interests.

Now a professor emeritus and research professor of community studies and sociology, Friedland is being honored for his contributions during the Rural Sociological Society's annual meeting August 8-12 in Tampa, Florida. "In a tribal sense, Bill is one of the elders of the sociology of agriculture movement," said Doug Constance, an associate professor of sociology at Sam Houston State University, who is coordinating the tribute in Friedland's honor. "His contribution was to look at the people in agriculture--the farmers and the farmworkers--at a time when power was being concentrated in global agricultural corporations. Everyone accepted that bigger was better until Bill came along and asked, 'Better for whom?'"

Friedland's numerous publications include From Columbus to Conagra: The Globalization of Agriculture and Food, Manufacturing Green Gold: The Conditions and Social Consequences of Lettuce Harvest Mechanization, and Destalking the Wily Tomato: A Case Study in Social Consequences in California Agricultural Research.

"For me, the university has been a remarkable place--that's the only way to describe it," said Friedland. "Intellectually, I found a kind of freedom that proves that academic freedom is a serious thing."

Friedland's wide-ranging interest in agriculture has focused on the social aspects of agriculture, including the impact of technology on labor. He is perhaps best known for his pathbreaking study of the consequences of the mechanization of tomato harvesting. Mechanization accelerated with the development at UC Davis of a machine harvester and a tomato that bears ripe fruit all at once rather than over time.

Mechanization ushered in a new era of efficiency, but Friedland documented the downside: The workforce collapsed from 50,000 laborers to 18,000, and the number of growers shrank from 4,000 to 600, weeding out those who could not afford a $35,000 harvester. Total acreage doubled, and tomato growing moved from Stockton to the southern San Joaquin Valley, where typical operations sprawled to 75 acres.

Davis researchers questioned the value of Friedland's after-the-fact analyses and challenged him to develop predictive models. Turning his attention to lettuce, Friedland identified the conditions that would precede mechanization and sought to anticipate its consequences. That study established Friedland as the leading researcher in the sociology of agriculture.

Friedland's research has illuminated what he calls the "cozy relationship" between UC researchers and commodity advisory boards, which tax their members to generate the funds needed to engage university experts. The result, according to Friedland, is a narrow research agenda set by the agricultural industry but subsidized by taxpayers who contribute to the university's operating expenses.

He urged his colleagues conducting agricultural research at UC Davis to expand their focus on labor beyond the needs of growers. "Agriculture depends on workers, and the university ought to develop a knowledge base that deals with workers and their welfare," said Friedland. "The University of California is one of the leading agencies in agricultural research in the world, and it needs to be responsive to social consequences and not just economic efficiency."

Finding little traction for his approach at Davis or within UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR), Friedland lobbied the state legislature to require the university to conduct studies that would anticipate the social consequences of agricultural research and to set social goals. He urged lawmakers to establish a research unit that could--without impeding innovation or academic freedom--conduct "projective analysis," and thereby anticipate impacts like widespread job loss. 

"That went over like a lead balloon," recalled Friedland.

Friedland's disappointment has waned little over the years, in part because he feels the challenges have only increased as innovation has shifted from the introduction of machines to the insertion of genes. The genetic modification of crops, like the widespread use of synthetic chemical pesticides, has been facilitated by agricultural researchers at universities like UC, he noted.

The university's service to agribusiness has come at the expense of consumers and workers, according to Friedland, who called on the university to respond to consumer demand for organic food by investing heavily in the development of organic farming methods.

Reflecting on his professional accomplishments, Friedland says community studies and its integration of living and learning is his greatest source of satisfaction. "Everyone learns through life, but most people do it inefficiently. Community studies was a deliberate attempt by this campus to get students to utilize their living experience as a conscious learning process," said Friedland, who worked in the Detroit auto industry and in union organizing for 12 years before turning to academia.

Friedland, who retired from teaching in 1991, is researching a book about wine and grapes.

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