Writer & Photographer Caroline Corinne Evans Abbott is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this article. From her project ‘At The Edge Of The World: Socioeconomic Disparity Between Davis, California and Outlying Farming Communities‘. To see Caroline’s body of work click on any image.
The farmlands of the flat, sun-crisped central valley region provide both the amusing illusion of a flat earth and the ethereally haunting, surreal feeling that beyond those plains, perhaps the world really does just… stop.
For many residents of these outlying farming regions, this is the end of the world: micro-communities thrive here around the agricultural industry and, as many are so intimately tied to tending fields and maintaining machines in order to make a living, breaking away from this life is next to impossible. Crop management, maintenance of irrigation systems, employment and management of labor resources, and land stewardship are demanding tasks with the severity of California’s drought, and just as in the days of government-incentivized, manifest destiny farming, agricultural responsibilities resound their timelessness: someone has to feed ol’ Betsy.
While contemporary situations certainly mirror the agelessness of responsibility within farming communities, the differences in today’s agricultural situation in California’s Central Valley are most noticeable by virtue of the startling and very visual disparity of wealth and privilege between the glittering University towns where resources abound and the outlying farmland.
By virtue of the great distance between residential dwellings due to the sheer pasture and field size, homes are often offset at great distance to one another, isolating members of these communities even further from assembling for gatherings and events. Grouped in small clusters, or standing solitarily amidst a great expanse of crops which serve as constant reminder of trade responsibility, these homes offer variation in style, but a vast majority are in some state of decrepitude. In fact, they often present a state of grave disrepair, and all too often, the schools and public works facilities which serve these homes appear to be in similar condition.
Photographic documentation of these outlying regions is of utmost importance in conveying these differences — improving visibility through artistic interpretation of culture, education, and social dynamic promotes a visibility which seeks to define the significance of every cracking board of every barn and present it in contrast to the idea of seamless, gleaming structures which so often surround University communities.
California’s economy rests not unsubstantially on the backs of those who contribute to the agricultural industry: in 2014, the state exported $50 billion in agricultural revenue. With over 75,000 farms and ranches registered with the government in this time frame, state economic dependence on California’s agricultural culture is understandably well-founded. On paper, business is booming — crops are selling, providing goods to export and upping California’s status on the international business spectrum. But in reality, while agriculture is in the black, the state of many of the Californian farming communities remain effectively in the symbolic red — a difference which remains at stark contrast to another of the state’s major cultural identifiers — the University of California system.
With a $14 billion dollar endowment, the state’s University system is also booming, drawing talented professionals, academics, and researchers from all corners of the globe to contribute to the production of some of the most elite research, cutting-edge technologies, and most novel theories in the modern world. The towns which surround these Universities — especially the larger ones like UC Davis — are thriving, Athenian visions of socially-conscious, epicurean ideals centered around community and family.
Davis is a wonderful (if strange and very expensive) town to live in from the perspective of an East Coast native, featuring a bustling farmer’s market complete with accordion players covering Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, and ABBA; art galleries; and small businesses thriving as permanent fixtures of the community here. It is the West Coast equivalent of an East Coast University town (with a deficit in overall majority of the telephone poles given the West Coast tendency to bury the power in affluent communities).
The University’s success provides economic ground to stand on for the ‘immediate family’ of the town; shops, businesses, and cultural centers. Most residents ride bikes, carry cloth grocery bags, and are generally very ‘crunchy granola’ — but occasionally, a beat-up truck with mud caked onto tire walls, windshield, and mirrors, Cummins Diesel Engine roaring and dual exhaust humming, will roll through with a “Hillbilly Dream” sticker and put things in perspective.
A local emblem of patronage to the arts and an icon of University power, the Mondavi Center in Davis, California, stands as a multi-million dollar, glimmering beacon of humanism and economic might with carefully crafted, slick sandstone tile coating the exterior of the building almost entirely — it is the University equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, situated directly next to the welcome center, beckoning all to the best the town has to offer, and itself partly a gift from a wealthy donor. It is, by multi-million dollar design, insurmountably beautiful, and the crown jewel of the Davis campus; but its slick, pricey walls are perfect architectural metaphor for a glass ceiling for the outlying towns.
Higher education is often much more easily accessible for these students through local community colleges, from which many students transfer to the ‘UC’s’, as they are colloquially, affectionately called, but getting there is a longer — and more daunting — journey. With many local students’ families intimately tied to the pursuit of agriculture as a way of life, the temptation to stay and contribute to this community through similar lines of work is often reinforced sociologically, and when the difficulty factor is accounted for, students may be less likely to end up with a quality, well-rounded education: less likely to see any more of the world than what they have been given.
The University system makes vested, well-intentioned efforts to attract students from farming communities in the hopes of their contribution to academics fields related to agriculture, but the ability of those students to cross over to other areas– specifically in the arts, humanities, and sciences — is more difficult purely by virtue of University focus on this ‘like attracts like’ idea.
While there is no shortage of agricultural tourism, an industry dependent on the need of urban-dwelling professionals to escape the pressures of city life, there is an apparent deficit in data collected which reflects travel destinations of those within agricultural communities. Given that any social question is a complexly multifaceted issue, it cannot be blindly assumed that education alone is a distinguishing factor for this discrepancy. There is, however, basis to hypothesize that the pursuit of quality higher education may contribute to the accessibility of international and domestic leisure travel significantly. Whether by increased income due to qualification, expected norms within educated communities, or countless other multidimensional factors, travel is undoubtedly more accessible to those with a traditional nine-to-five position.
The traveling process exposes the human mind to cultural stimuli which serve to expand the thought process and to cerebrally stimulate the creative and academic development of the mind– doing so is instrumentally important in managing a well-rounded education, a luxury not afforded to these farming communities due to aforementioned social construct and educational inaccessibility.
This concept, illustrated by such poignant examples of cultural detritus reflects regression to near fiefdom levels of social construct: extensive resources are pooled within privileged communities, upper class members have better access to more intricate, liberal arts or research-based educations, and lower class members often pursuing trade-based education or labor, supporting the economy throughout with their contributions to the agricultural industry but with lessened access to the resources available to the privileged as a result of their commitment. The Athenian values of Davis, California are contrasted by the Spartan imagery of surrounding farmland.
The socioeconomic disparity represented by a simple drive through this part of the country potently illustrates certain discrepancy between two worlds — imagery which is effectively captured through artistic, photographic accounts of this region. This breadth of photography seeks to demonstrate both an intimate account of California farm and farming community life, suggesting a sharp cultural disparity between two worlds which are unique in their incredibly close geographic proximity to one another, seeking overall to echo the necessity for reallocation of resources to benefit members of these communities at a level which is as academically beneficial as it is monetarily remunerative.
In order to improve community; education, not industry; must be considered and doctored with appropriate accessibility for farming community members to liberal arts courses if for no other reason than to allow those members to visualize and comprehend the benefit their trade (and contributions therein) brings to the increasingly globalized world economy. Higher education must be moderated with cultural sensitivity in order to truly educate, and an approach which both values the contributions of these local farming communities and prompts those within them to pursue academic areas of interest outside of their expected community career norms is critical to student — and University — success.
Many residents of these intensely agriculturally-focused communities will never depart from the farming lifestyle: for many of them, powerlines will be their Eifel Towers, granaries their skyscrapers, the reflection of trees on rice paddies, flood and irrigation plains their Taj Mahal, and blood-red sunsets catching the bare translucency of softly-quivering grain their African savannah… and, until educational accessibility is improved within the University of California system through application of University resources towards community education endeavors in outlying agricultural communities, The Mondavi Center, their palace of Versailles.
By Caroline Corinne Evans Abbott