As part of our #AAG2021 virtual conference series, we reached out to author Julie Guthman to discuss her award-winning book, Wilted, and our Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics series.

Julie Guthman is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her previous books include Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California and Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.

What are the key interests that have guided your research to this point?

To some my research oeuvre might appear promiscuous, but each project has sparked an interest that has led to the next. For instance, my research in organics and alternative food movements brought me to obesity discourses as I noted that alternative food movements saw obesity as a problem that they could solve. My investigation of the nutritional assumptions underlying the so-called obesity epidemic turned my attention to environmental toxins and their epigenetic effects. My interest in epigenetics brought me to regulatory battles over the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide. And, lastly, my project on strawberry production and alternatives to fumigation drew my attention to technologies that promised to do away with the messiness of land and labor in agrarian production.

Overall, some of the abiding themes in my research include: the role of California’s land and land values in shaping the conditions of possibility for more ecologically sound and socially just production; the relationship between material bodies and their nutritional and chemical environments; and the problem with solutions to food and agriculture that do not address complex histories of racial capitalism.

Your book, Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry, won the 2019 Meridian Book Award from the Association of American Geographers. When announcing the award, the association compared it to Rachel Caron’s famous Silent Spring and remarked your book was “about so much more than strawberries.” What motivated your focus on this particular topic and what is your book really about?

As long as I have been interested in California agriculture, I have been interested in strawberries.  Miriam Wells’ classic book, Strawberry Fields, proved highly formative in my graduate education, particularly her focus on how specific crop characteristics, such as tenderness and perishability, shaped labor processes and ultimately systems of recruitment, supervision and remuneration. I had strawberries on my mind as I developed the arguments for my first book, Agrarian Dreams, about the relationship between crop value and land value, which affects what crops could be grown profitably and how.  High land values, I argued, constrained the ability to follow the agroecological ideals associated with organic farming while at the same time the value received from organic production was contributing to higher land values!

Yet what motivated me to further research the California strawberry industry was the contested regulatory battle over the registration of methyl iodide – a highly toxic soil fumigant developed to replace the ozone-depleting methyl bromide.  A wide coalition of actors, including environmental and public health organizations, farmworkers groups, and even foodies weighed in on this fight, and I wondered how that would shape the outcome.  Having just previously written on epigenetics and environmental toxicity, an offshoot of my obesity project, I was also deeply curious if the chemical had potential endocrine-disrupting qualities and whether the potential for long-term effects on farmworker children would affect regulatory calculations. In other words, I was interested in exploring questions of whose bodies and whose lives mattered – consumers who wanted a cheap strawberry year-round, allowed by continued use of fumigants, or workers and their progeny.

I published a few articles on that question, but Wilted ended up telling a different story.  It was very much inspired by Timothy Mitchell’s influential essay “Can the mosquito speak?” which details how a set of heterogeneous elements and conditions, operating at different temporalities and spatial scales, came together to bring into being a major malaria epidemic in 1940s Egypt. The essay also touches on how efforts to fix the problem created new problems because they required collaborating with non-human elements that couldn’t be controlled.

In similar fashion, Wilted gives some emphasis to how a widespread fungus, Verticillium dahliae became a soil pathogen in the context of commercial strawberry production. But it is mostly a more-than-human account of how the industry’s reliance on soil fumigation as a way of managing soil pathogens reverberated throughout the rest of the strawberry production system. In doing so, it entrenched a particular production assemblage that is now threatened from multiple directions, including proprietary plant breeding, high land values, labor shortages, and not least, the novel ecological conditions that fumigation and climate change have unleashed. So what is Wilted really about? It is about the problem with simple, singular solutions, in this case the chemical solutions (double-entendre intended) that caused such iatrogenic harm.

You’ve written several award-winning books, including Wilted, Agrarian Dreams, and Weighing In. What advice do you have for first-time authors who are working to develop and publish a book?

I was just thinking about this very question for a workshop I recently attended for a first-time book author.  Transforming a dissertation into a compelling book can be challenging, especially in disciplines that encourage stand-alone articles.  I have two main pieces of advice. The first is to take time and space to think on a narrative arc for the book, a through line that will hold it all together toward a larger argument.  Chronologies are relatively easy but that’s not the only way to organize a book. Perhaps you want to provide layers of explanation, or illustrate different cases, or focus on the most prominent actors, or answer a series of questions.  I organized Weighing In for example, around a series of taken-for-granted assumptions questions about the so-called obesity epidemic. In Wilted, I organized the text around a series of threats to the strawberry industry, most of which had once been advantages.  It took quite a lot of mind-mapping to get to these, but once I hit upon the right narrative arc, it not only seemed obvious, but the writing also came much easier.

My second piece of advice follows from the above. It is to let your story, your empirical data, or your findings lead the narrative.  Too often I see less experienced authors serve theory rather than use theory to serve them. Center your contributions and have theory support them.   

As for actual writing, I have developed several tricks and habits that work for me in dealing with writer’s block, although I recognize they may not work for others. For example, I draft chapter (or article) introductions before diving into the body.  I find this a more organic way to develop a logic for the piece than a detailed outline.  I do not self-censor when I begin to write. I write what comes to me when it comes to me, even if it means writing “XXX” for words and ideas that are eluding me. I find it so much easier and actually fun to edit once I get something on the proverbial page.  And I really try to write when I’m in the mood and avoid it when I’m not.  If I feel like I’m banging me head against the wall (again, proverbially), I try to take a walk or sit outside, hopefully in the warm California sun.  Sometimes the words or ideas come to me as soon as I’m away from my computer (which is why I also bring a handheld recorder for these outings.)

As a co-editor of Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics can you talk about the goals of the series and what kinds of projects you’re looking for?

Environmentalism has produced many orthodoxies that bear interrogation.  Fields such as political ecology have gone a long way in showing how environmental projects are not universally beneficial or desirable and may infringe on livelihoods, self-determination and more.   This series continues and expands on this tradition.  In invoking the term “critical” we signal attention to both ecologies in critical condition and modes of analysis that unsettle mainstream narratives and assumption about environments. We are particularly interested in books that shed light on the role of science and scientists in producing, assessing and even contesting environments of concern.

Also, we take a capacious view of “environment.” Indeed we’d love to see more books about bodily and microbial ecologies – as well as those that consider changes in physical environments. Not least, we are looking for books that are scholarly, writerly and well-crafted, and that amply draw on authors’ historical and ethnographic research.