Thursday, May 17, 2012

"This is the beginning -  from 'I' to 'we'."

"The long narrow swale" was one of descriptions that Steinbeck applied to the Salinas valley in northern California and the title for this particular post is taken from a passage in The Grapes of Wrath in which, with the Joads on the road and heading west towards dreams of work and happiness in California, Steinbeck ruminates on the qualitative difference that exists between people acting as individuals and people acting collectively when they recognize a common purpose.  Salinas and the power of collaboration are the themes of the day.

Soon after I arrived in Davis in 2010 I began working with the salad industry in the Salinas valley to try to alleviate problems with a plant disease problem (downy mildew) that causes salad spinach to turn yellow making it unmarketable. When trying to solve problems in crop production it is nearly always a good idea to understand why the people growing the crops make the decisions they do.  The standard approach to answering this sort of question in agricultural research is to bring in the expertise and approaches of economists, and I have spent a fair bit of time over the last 20 years trying to amalgamate pieces of economics and plant pathology, with mixed results.  A few visits to Salinas, and time spent discussing the day to day business of farming in America's salad bowl with its farmers, got me wondering if maybe something else was needed.  I was struck by the strength of historical perspective that the growers displayed in their discussions of their current problems.  

This was not a reactionary grumbling that things ain't what the used to be, nor a hand-wringing lamentation that we've always done it this way and don't want to change, both of which are caricatures of typical farmers' responses to change that circulate among researchers and extension agents around the world.   No.  What was striking about the farmers in Salinas was the extent to which the past provided reference points with which they, for the most part objectively, compared their current experience while they sought answers to their problems.  I began to think, and still do, that if I am to understand the way that today's generation of farmers think in the Salinas valley I need to understand the history of the place and the people.

Since that first experience working with the salad industry in Salinas, the work in my group in Davis has grown and diversified and now involves problems in citrus, grapes, processing tomato and strawberry nursery plant production.  In all of these, the recurring themes of historical context, the need for cooperation, and the interdisciplinary nature of the problems are all too obvious., bringing me (at last) to what will be the ongoing theme for this blog - the experience of doing interdisciplinary science, aimed at solving real problems in agriculture.

Finally, a note on the backdrop - not the Salinas valley but another long narrow swale that has played a significant part in life.  It's the Dalveen pass in southwest Scotland (the picture was taken looking north).  It was part of the view on my weekly commute for 7 or 8 years as a I drove from home in New Galloway to work in Edinburgh.