CFP: Congress of Rural History, “Dreaming California”

September 10-13, 2019, Paris, France

Organizers: Niccolò Mignemi (ERHIMOR), Vicente Pinilla (University of Zaragoza) and Alexia Blin (Université Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle)

Dreaming California: the myth of the “cornucopia” as a transnational model for innovations in agriculture (1860s-2010s)

This panel aims to explore the making and remaking of California as a long-term and transnational reference for innovation in the agricultural, agri-food and rural fields. The idea here is not to explore the history of the Californian countryside and primary sector between the 1860s and today. Rather, the goal of the panel is to analyze how the myth of the Golden State as a cornucopia has been cyclically reinvented and mobilized in various contexts and at different levels over the past 150 years as a frontier of (technological, scientific, economic, and social) innovation in domains related to agricultural, rural, and food change.

Since the mid-19th century, the rise of American exports on world agricultural markets has also propagated the myth of California’s natural abundance. In the years following the Gold Rush, the fertility of Californian land and suitable climate continued to attract new settlers from the eastern territories of the United States, as well as foreign (Mexican, Asian and European) migrants. Farmers profited from the grain boom of the 1860s-1870s. Then, California shifted dramatically from extensive to intensive agriculture and began to specialize in cash crops (nuts, grapes, citrus, and deciduous fruits), occupying the top position globally starting in the 1890s. This transformation was made possible by natural conditions, but fundamentally it was supported by investments in infrastructure (irrigation and transportation), technology, and biological innovation. At the same time, the joint action of governmental bodies, economic actors, and civil society encouraged economic and social initiatives to promote growth and respond to potential consequences on market, labor, and environmental equilibria.

In an age when the common issue of agricultural development rallied international scientific, economic and political networks, California established itself as a transnational model of experimentation in the vast domains related to agricultural production, agro-industrial processing, and food consumption. Its orchards were used for technological experimentation and plant breeding. The packed fruits conquering European markets both frightened and fascinated Mediterranean competitors. The struggles of local farm workers helped galvanize civil rightsmovements. Thus, the state of California became one of the most widely cited references in global discussions about the capitalist development of agriculture, in both positive and negative terms. California has maintained its position throughout the 20th century, and today the consequences of pesticide use and GMOs can be observed here, alongside changes born out of recent debates on the agroecological turn, organic farming and alternative food systems.

Call for papers

Submissions may fall under one or more of the following themes:

  • Exploring scientific, technological, economic, and social experiments from around the world that reference the California model while striving to promote local innovation in order to modernize agricultural production and markets, transform the industrial use of natural resources, and encourage new models and standards in food consumption.
  • Analyzing the critical views that attack the Californian “factories in the fields” model, which exemplifies the effects of the intensive exploitation of human and natural resources for capitalist agricultural development, polluting the environment, industrializing the production of foodstuffs, and accentuating social and racial inequalities.
  • Discussing the international networks and institutional channels connecting the rest of the world to local clusters of scientific, business and political actors, transforming California into a hegemonic center where the innovation process has constantly been fueled and renewed by knowledge and experience coming from the peripheries.

If you are interested in participating, please send an abstract (max. 300 words) and a short CV to

Deadline: February 1, 2019

Posted: October 26, 2018