Working the Land: “Tradition Versus Facts” in California Cultivator, 24 March 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead’s collection has some 80 issues of California Cultivator, a Los Angeles “journal of horticulture, agriculture and livestock” that combined in the mid-1910s with The Rural Californian, formed in 1877, and the Livestock and Dairy Journal, which first published at the dawn of the 20th century. Through its pages we can learn a good deal about these important areas of the regional economy in the first few decades of the century and tonight’s post highlights several articles and editorials in the 24 March 1928 edition of the publication.

On the editorial page is “We Must Build Better” which referred to the terrible disaster following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam near modern Santa Clarita earlier in the month. The piece began with the observation that “the recent St. Francis dam disaster has naturally caused more or less concern as to the safety of other dams behind which are stored equal or larger bodies of water” and added that “reports that this or that dam is leaking badly and likely to go out at any moment are being freely circulated, whereas an actual inspection of them would likely show that the leaks are no worse and the dams just as secure as before the St. Francis went out.”

Having said this, though, the piece continued that “for safety’s sake and for the peace of mind of those living” nearby, “an early and complete inspection [should] be made of any dams as to which there is the least doubt of their security.” Additionally, “a complete and accurate investigation [needs to] be made by competent and unbiased engineers to determine why the St. Francis dam gave way” so that “defects in future structures of this kind may be eliminated.”

Governor C.C. Young was cited as observing that the state’s future development “is dependent upon water conservation and we must continue to build storage dams” but these had to “be built so securely that only powers beyond the control of man [earthquakes?] can cause them to fall.” It was hoped that, with the appalling loss of life as well as the destruction of property, there would now “be the means of averting greater and more disastrous catastrophes in the future” without limiting the improvements of water conservation.

The editorial concluded with the note that:

One thing is certain, we must not condemn water conservation because one dam has failed to hold. All over the world are dams of vastly greater proportions that have been standing and doing duty for years. In this great Southwest we must continue to build others and while this has been a sad and costly lesson the damage it has wrought can never be undone so we should make the best of it by building stronger and better in the future.

Given how close, apparently, the Oroville Dam, the tallest in the country, was to being breached due to heavy rainfall five years ago, leading to evacuation of a large number of residents, this issue still remains, even as we now endure a drought the levels of which have not been experienced for some 1,200 years. Water storage and conservation is, of course, going to be an increasingly fraught issue in flood and in drought in our increasingly uncertain future.

Oroville Dam is 770 feet high from the foundation and has a crest elevation of 922 feet and in the “Agricultural News Notes of the Pacific Coast” page, comprising very brief notes, it was reported that a court ruling was that the dam in San Gabriel Canyon, built several years later, was to be 425 feet high. Other local tidbits were that Azusa finished a new city hall; that Covina reported 11 1/2 inches of rain through mid-March, a little more than half than that in the flood year of 1927; that the San Antonio Fruit Exchange at Upland was shipping lemons to England and Japan; that a new rock crushing apparatus near Baldwin Park (that is, today’s Irwindale) was “said to be the finest ever built” as it processed rock and gravel left in massive deposits outside the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon; and that Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippines Senate and later president, “will live in Monrovia, Los Angeles County, for at least one year, recovering health.” The foothill towns of the San Gabriel Mountains was, since the late 19th century, well known for its sanitaria for those looking to improve their health.

A feature on the growing of Washington Navel oranges in the Golden State’s interior valleys is somewhat technical, but the piece by R.W. Hunt began with observing that the problem was production issues because of “June drop.” This referred to the shedding of fruit from trees, either during blossoming in the spring to the mid-season losses at the end of May and into June, while smaller numbers of falling oranges occurred at the end of summer and the beginning of the fall. It was noted that “about 80 per cent of all the blossom buds, blossoms and very small fruits are shed prior to the fruit setting period, generally in early May.

While this was expected for virtually any type of fruit, the concern was what to do to bring the remaining 20% to maturity because only a quarter of those “develop into mature fruits when conditions are favorable” and, when the situation was poor, “the number reaching maturity is less than one percent.” Most of the problem occurred in that mid-season period, with black rote being a significant problem, especially during “the late drop.”

Hunt noted that “the greater percentage of the mid-season drop follows in the wake of any early period of abnormally high temperatures.” So, in 1926, there was a three-day hot spell at the end of May followed by the high temperatures of the “June drop” period. The following year, there were record-shattering days of 100-degree temperatures and “a severe shedding of immature fruits followed this spell of excessive heat.” A review of eight years of temperatures found, not surprisingly, that any such heatwaves “would be considered excessive” and our rising temperatures as climate change accelerates brings greater threats of lower yields of all kinds of crops in California.

Soil types, of course, are vital in the development of agricultural production and it was noted that heavy soils were more likely to have moisture problems than light and compact soils and a study was quoted noting that “conditions of low atmospheric humidity, high temperature, exposure to high winds and a limits supply of soil moisture sometimes induce, in trees, moisture deficits that lend to . . . the dropping of blossoms or fruits.”

Potential responses included encouraging trees stronger in the spring “by the use of heavy, high-purity oil sprays” at the end of the year and beginning of the next and by “the moderate use of animal manures and nitrogen concentrates.” Tests of oil sprays in 1926 before budding took place in February were found to be promising. With fertilization, “most growers make a yearly application of approximately ten tons of animal manure and 200 pounds of nitrogen concentrate per acre,” with these introduced in the late summer and early fall for the former and in the spring for the latter.

It is hard to overestimate just how important nitrates from Chile have been to the development of agriculture since the late 19th century.

Important as these methods were, though, there was the matter of the fact that “our irrigation practices must be adjusted so that the soil moisture is most readily available to the tree” when hot weather ensued, including “frequent light irrigations applied fairly close to the tree.” This, of course, depended on the age of the orchards and how close feeder roots were to the trees, but the general idea was “to keep our moisture supply as nearly constant as possible” as irregularity could be a major hindrance as well as too much or too little water.

Keeping foliage healthy was crucial for the natural protection of trees and their fruit and it was observed that the best yields were found in groves in which pruning was done judiciously so that “suckers have been allowed to grow freely except around the tree trunks.” With the bearing surface expanded, the fruit was better shaded and plant food was better absorbed and distributed, especially after the second year.

Cutting suckers that came from the same location and pruning dead wood were also discussed in some detail. Also important was cultivation of weeds into the soil during the early winter while the soil was still dry to increase organic content. Ringing, in which deep cuts were made without removing bark, allowed for the better assimilation of plant food and, while more study was needed as to the best time for this process, Hunt felt that doing so at the conclusion of blossoming was most advantageous.

Whatever the methods, he concluded that:

Regularity in orchard practices is essential if we wish to keep our groves at their best . . . When crops are good and prices are right—the groves received excellent care—but when crops are poor and prices are doubtful—the trees suffer. It is false economy to skimp if we intend to make the orange business pay. Growers who invest wisely from year to year seldom have a serious loss to face.

Finally, there is Horace Dunbar’s “Traditions versus Facts” analyzing research by agricultural scientists and comparing that to what was practiced in fields, vineyards, groves and orchards. The writer, former head of a statewide soil improvement committee and also an agent for a Utah phosphate company, noted that “there is a distinct line of demarcation between scientific research and field practice, yet they are complementary and necessary one to the offer” and this was because “the first seeks specific principles, [and] the other seeks their application. One searches for facts for truth’s sake, the other must put facts and truth to work.”

Adding that “the task that confronts us here in California is to find the basis upon which scientific soil research and the ranch can unite in attacking practical problems of the soil,” Dunbar cautioned that “no such combination is possible without absolute mutual confidence and until each side is thoroughly familiar with conditions and needs both in the laboratory and field,” no real progress could be made. He observed “that when concrete evidence [from scientific study] develops contrary to accepted tradition, we are slow to see the significance and importance of such development.”

Because the application of scientific research in agriculture was relatively new, the author asked “what could be more idea of logical than to see the farmer and the scientists joining hands and working, each along his respective line of endeavor, towards the goal of profitable agriculture?” He claimed that farmers were eager “but tradition has isolated the scientist from the field,” so a better connection through the extension service of the University of California and more consistent findings from it and the scientific community was essential.

A contradiction within the university system was that farmers were told, for example, by the extension service that soils in the state were abundantly naturally supplied with potash and phosphates, while the scientists were explaining that there were many areas of the state “that are emphatically packing in one or both of these particular essential plant food elements.” Embarrassing (if not also confusing) as this might be for the farmer, Dunbar noted that “cooperation is impossible if the connecting medium is insulated to prevent direct contact with either side” in these academic fiefdoms.

It seems clear the Dunbar was placing more of the blame on the extension service for not accepting the finding of the scientists who were “supposed to furnish the extension service with its facts and its tools with which to work.” While there were apparently some experts who questioned how advanced soil research had progressed, the writer wondered “if this is the case, then where does the extension service derive its right to substitute any outline?” and then queried “On what does the extension service base its soil fertility program?”

He continued that, while no one questioned the importance of nitrogen fertilization, there was a dispute about whether it alone would make up for the lack of potash or phosphates. There may have been some places where only using it made sense, “but in California agriculture let us cease trying to fit a No. 5 shoe on No. 8 foot.” Farmers certainly could not be faulted for seeing the value of research that showed particular evidence of a lack of needed soil elements instead of relying on theories or generalizations that were not based on either research or experience in the field.

Dunbar ended with these two important questions:

Should the existing unfortunate and unnecessary situation continue, and should cooperation between the university and the farmer be essential to agriculture, which side will the farmer line up with—the extension service maintaining an arbitrary formula of finality, or the scientific research department frankly seeking facts?

How long will the university subject the farmer to the necessity of making a choice?

While the days of widespread agricultural production in greater Los Angeles were definitely numbered due to rampant suburbanization into the plains south and east of the Angel City and in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, it is still instructive to see what were some of the major issues for farmers and growers here and statewide.

We’ll continue to share issues of California Cultivator in the “Working the Land” series of posts on this blog, so be sure to look out for them in the future.

2 thoughts

  1. CORRECTION: I live here at the Oroville Dam on Kelly Ridge & the actual dam height is 900 ft. Thank you. Valorie Fitch

  2. Hi Valorie, thanks for the correction and the post has been edited to note the 770 feet height above the foundation and the 922 feet of crest elevation. Here’s hoping you don’t have a repeat of 2017!

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