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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Isao Fujimoto fosters student tradition of agricultural action

 UC Davis has a history in rural agriculture, and with the large presence of “sustainability” on campus, it seems a community-centered food system was second nature.

However, according to the past students of Isao Fujimoto who founded such iconic institutions as the Davis Food Co-Op and Farmers Market, the 1960s and ’70s were a time of change, and it took the organizing actions of students and faculty to establish such principles in the community.

The Vietnam War, the Green Revolution and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had all occurred around the time when professor emeritus in Asian American Studies and Community Development, Isao Fujimoto, arrived to UC Davis in 1967. With a background in rural sociology, he said he aimed to help students integrate values of community and social justice.

“It was an incredible time of energy for change,” said Ann Evans, 1975 UC Davis alum and co-founder of the Davis Food Co-Op and Farmers Market. “People who grew up in the ’50s were just finding their voice and they had a lot to say … There was a whole movement around food for people, not for profit. It was a time where farm workers were just beginning to organize and unionize, consumers were just starting to find their voice … Isao was very much a product of that time.”

According to Fujimoto, during this time former Chancellor Emil Mrak declared a four day moratorium during which discussion and proposals between students and faculty led to such institutional changes as the the establishment of ethnic, women’s and environmental studies on campus among others.

Janet Mercerio, 1972 alumna and one of the first Native American Studies graduates of UC Davis, said Fujimoto fostered this energy of change at his home, at one time housing 11 student projects and organizations there.

“His house was the headquarters of everything and he was the spearhead of the alternative movement here in Davis,” Mercerio said. “Networking was one of his main qualities; just getting to know people and connecting them with other people, trying to create a movement by everybody working together. ”

“Alternative” was the contemporary word, much like “sustainability” is used today. One project Fujimoto worked on with his students was the Alternative Agricultural Resources Project.

Fujimoto wrote in a 1976 abstract that the project was born out of a 1973 conference at UC Davis concerning the redirection of “research priorities in the college of agriculture … to better serve publics the Land Grant system had been ignoring,” which included farm workers, consumers and family farmers.

During his first years at UC Davis he visited a United Farm Workers strike in Delano, Calif. where he said he was considered a Davis ally to farm workers. It was then that he noticed how juxtaposed the University was perceived to be against the agricultural workforce.

“UC Davis was seen as  a place for supporting ag. research that would benefit the growers … it had an emphasis on increasing production … but the human dimension got side tracked,” Fujimoto said. “Agriculture is not just about land and production, it’s also about community and … respecting the people and environmental resources that make production possible. That was our whole approach from the beginning. [However] I had a rough time on campus because I didn’t get much support so I started doing things at home.”

Evans, along with the other co-founders of the Farmers Market and Co-op, worked with Fujimoto in the  Alternative Agricultural Resources Project and saw his home as a refuge through which he inspired many students with his integrated views of community and food systems.

“He really provided us with a sense that the ideas that we had were okay, they were normal, they just weren’t the ‘normal’ of the University but worthy of pursuit,” Evans said. “It was helpful to hear from an adult that your natural thoughts are meaningful even though they don’t conform to the status quo.”

According to Evans, Fujimoto’s social and environmental ideals trickled into the foundational principles of the Farmers Market and Co-op, which started out as a buying club made up of student housing cooperatives before spreading to 300 homes in the community. In 1976, co-founders Henry Esbenshade, Martin Barnes of Capay Organic Farms, and Annie Main of Good Humus Farms established their own farming operations, and, together with Evans, secured a storefront and marketplace for the Davis Food Co-Op and Davis Farmers Market which continue to support each other today.

“We were dedicated to creating a new vision of a local food system,” Evans said. “It wasn’t just a food co-op … In our minds we were working on changing the world … and Isao really had an environmental influence on this region because a lot of people who studied with him became pioneering California organic farmers.”

Though Fujimoto advocated the importance of place and mobilizing efforts from the community-up structure he saw the importance of top-down institutional change as well. Mercerio remembered one such moment in which Fujimoto actively questioned the the contemporary academic thought concerning marginalized communities in agriculture.

“[Isao] once took me to a conference on food scarcity but it was held at this ritzy conference center; it seemed so incongruous,” Mercerio said. “Isao was the only one who got up and talked about how [scarcity] wasn’t a matter of producing more food but a matter of distribution. I really appreciated Isao’s continuous pushing from the inside since he was a professor and … expert on these issues. But he was sometimes a lone voice speaking up for rectifying the inequalities in our food system.”

According to Fujimoto, his understanding of rural and agricultural issues stems from his experience in Japanese Internment camps as a child in the 1940s and his family’s subsequent sharecropping of strawberries in the Santa Clara Valley, which has influenced some of his current work with organizations like the Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship.

“When you’re share farming … you may do all the work but you have no say in how you market the [produce] … and  if you’re not in control or have the power of decision making you’re always going to be poor,” Fujimoto said. “There’s a real imbalance in rural California because in the one hand the Central Valley … is the richest agricultural region in the history of the world and yet the poorest cities in California are in the Central Valley. So you have on the one hand wealth and you have poverty in the same place. Yet Davis is the main university in the Central Valley … we have a real contribution to make.”

Though social inequalities still exist in the food system Evans observes that the paradigm concerning “sustainability” has shifted and become the norm after decades of effort.

“Now the campus has incorporated many of the values that Isao was talking about with his students at that time in the seventies and UC Davis … has many [programs around sustainability,” Evans said. “But really Isao, and a few other lecturers and professors like him, [are the ones] who shed the light years ago on that path … That’s what people like Isao do. They are prophets, they are ahead of their time, they are never popular during their time because they’re not saying things that people want to hear … They’re calling for change because they see a better world and they think it’s possible.”

In 1986, California Legislature established the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) as a push to increase research in agricultural practices concerning the environment, health of  rural communities and economics of family farms.

Previously, the UC Davis Student Farm was established in the 1977 due to another student effort for organic agriculture with the appropriation of 20 acres of land and approval from former dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Charlie Hess.  And in 2007 these two institutions combined with the experimental 300 acre Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility to form the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI).

According to Tom Tomich, 1979 UC Davis alumnus and founding director of ASI, the UC as a land-grant university must have credibility in science, usefulness to society and legitimacy in research agendas. These three issues apply to work on sustainability at all public universities and ASI’s national Inter-Institutional Network for Food, Agriculture and Sustainability (INFAS) is a collaboration with 25 other academic partners across the U.S. to build this capacity.

“[ASI] has decided that the biggest single purpose of that [INFAS] is to figure out how to bring in the voices of people who have been marginalized due to race, gender or socioeconomic status,” Tomich said. “We’re in the middle of a yearlong design process of how to build relationships so the whole spectrum of society feels they have a voice in setting [research] agendas because a lot of the communities we are talking about are victims of structural racism and discrimination.”

Furthermore, according to Tomich, the present state of “sustainability” still has room for improvement and agrees that changes in the status quo will always be a constant.

“There’s a tendency to think of sustainability as a checklist … and you hear this when people say [something] is ‘sustainable’ or this is ‘unsustainable,’” Tomich said. “To tell you the truth I don’t think anything we’re doing right now is sustainable and to get to a better place … we have to have a conversation as a society about what our priorities and values are … it’s as much about citizenship as it is about individual choices about production and consumption.”


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