About the Project

We are what we eat.  Behind every dish and every food product there is at least one story.  Food production reveals much about a society’s relationship to the environment, regulatory philosophies, and culture.  My research project on the industrial production of deciduous canned fruit analyzes the mechanisms by which the commercial fruit canneries of California dominated the canned fruit market in America, the impact the industry had on the cities in the region, and its role in the state’s agricultural and public health institutions.  I argue that the strength of the industry came from its early consolidation and formation of strong production  networks.  These networks consolidated economic and political power that gave the California fruit cannery owners extensive control over the environment in Northern California.  Their power waned when other industries, such as (one or two examples), with more powerful  networks and greater economic and political power emerged.   Over time in this highly contested landscape, growing environmental awareness also played a role in history of the canning industry.  As more people began to question the equity of resource use in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Central Valley, canneries and other large businesses changed how they interacted with the environment.  Thus this study of the fruit canning industry weaves together issues of industrialization, urbanization, state development, the changing American diet, and modern agriculture.

Thus far, the environmental history of food processing in the United States has received scant attention from scholars.  Food processors are agro-industrial places that exist in a space that transcend urban-rural borders. Some scholars have already begun to question the dichotomy between industrial and rural areas by arguing that during the twentieth century, agriculture also industrialized.  My research adds to this argument and expands on the idea by providing a different picture of industrialization.  Perhaps the industrialization of the West did not look the same as that in the East, but it was no less transformative. 

My dissertation also examines the relationship between industry and state development.  As California’s canning industry emerged as the national leader, it increasingly drew on the resources of expansive state and federal agencies.  The associative state model was prominent as the industry first came together, and even after increased government involvement, large companies, some would say an oligopoly, and strong trade associations were vital in the functioning and form of the industry.  The government’s assistance in the form of the land grant university (University of California – Berkeley) and agricultural research programs were instrumental in product and technology development.  The levels of authority within the associative constantly shifted between the partners. When the government’s power was restrained, trade associations often assumed the tasks normally associated with government entities, such as the development of industry production standards to reduce the botulism threat.  However, when state and federal entities reasserted their authority, often in times of crisis such as World War II, the trade association acted as a conduit facilitating industry’s response to government’s new demands.  After the war, when cannery owners faced stricter environmental regulation of waste disposal and the associative state began to fade, the trade association more aggressively lobbied the government for support.  It is this shifting relationship between government and industry that defines the associative state in California and distinguished western food production from its eastern counterpart. 


“Fruit Cocktail, Rations, and By-Products: The University of California – Berkeley and Modern Food,” in Service as Mandate: How Land Grant Universities Shaped the Modern World, 1920-2015, ed. Alan Marcus (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015) 219-240. 


2016 – “Regulating the ‘Kitchens of the Nation’: Fruit Cannery Waste Disposal in the Central Valley in the Mid-Twentieth Century” Part of the panel “Envirotechnical Histories in Waste Management” at the American Society for Environmental History Conference 2016

2013 – “Waste Disposal and the ‘Kitchens of the Nation:’ Fruit Canners and Water Health in Northern California” Western History Association Conference

2012 – “Fruit Cocktail: William Cruess, University of California, and California’s Fruit Canning Industry” Agricultural History Conference

2011 – “California’s Cannery Inspection Board and Botulism” American Society of Environmental History Conference

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Public Historian, Museum Director, and Historical Site Preservation Advocate.