Though most ketchup-eating Americans don’t know it, one machine—the mechanical tomato harvester—allows California’s Central Valley to play a critical role in ensuring that we never run out of that classic condiment. The invention of the mechanical tomato harvester took a feat of engineering that had tremendous impact on the tomato industry. But a backlash to the machine’s invention among activists also sparked the early California food movement. When it was released in 1964, the machine put tens of thousands of farmworkers and 95 percent of tomato farmers quickly out of work. This led to national debates about the role of land-grant universities in developing industry-altering technologies that benefit only a select few.
In 2015, the two of us—Aubrey Thompson and Ildi Carlisle-Cummins—joined together to produce a podcast, Cal Ag Roots. The first episode is about the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester and its complicated story of technological triumph and social failure. In some ways, the story begged us to tell it. We’re both products of UC Davis, the public university where the harvester was invented, we were both taught about the value and inevitability of technological developments, and we were both striving to make agriculture better for everyone. As it turned out, the institutions where we were working while producing this story have their roots in the conflict over the tomato harvester.
In other ways, the story was much bigger than us. The mechanical tomato harvester carries an almost mythological weight for many in our situation; young academics and advocates in California hear echoes of the harvester story, but rarely the original voices of those involved. As a team, we thought it was important to bring those voices back to the fore. We wanted to allow those involved with the invention of the harvester and its fallout to interact with young academics and activists to inform their professional paths in food and agriculture.
We told this story through our first podcast episode, “There’s Nothing more Californian than Ketchup.” Through this, we found ourselves forced to navigate the politics of our positionality, roles, and identities to tell this story in the right way. Ildi Carlisle Cummins is an activist who was educated at UC Davis. Aubrey Thompson, also a UC Davis alumna, continues to work as a staff member at the university. This article introduces you to the process we went through to tell a politically charged story from our positions inside and outside of the university. It also reflects on how we navigated (and continue to navigate) our individual roles in institutions trying to do activist-and research-oriented work.
Since it has been four years since this collaboration, we decided the best way to revisit the project was to record a conversation between the two of us. We’ve been able to reflect on the process, and wanted to share those reflections directly using our favorite medium: audio!
NOTE: the audio transcripts below have been edited for cohesion.
Aubrey Thompson (AT): Do you have your radio voice on?
Ildi Carlisle-Cummins (ICC): Here we are in the middle of Aubrey’s workday, remembering work done three years ago. But yeah, we’re gonna try and, like, think about how and why we made this story about the tomato harvester and what it was like to work together, like from very different roles. As friends [giggle], but coming at it from very different roles.
AT: Well, should we break it down a little bit? [Yes] Well, from my perspective, I work at a public university that has decreasing public funds as the years go on and yet is consistently responsible to the public that it serves and needs to better learn how to do that.
AT: [. . .] A public university with public funds is one thing, but a public university that actually responds to the needs of its public, is another challenge altogether. And I see it as my work, in my current role and my past role, to . . . improve that.
By clicking on each of the audio clips as you read, you’ll be able to hear directly from us on some of the major themes we discussed and lessons we learned:
- We’re not journalists, but instead work for institutions that cultivate their own voices.
- Telling this story together helped propel each of us toward the kind of academics and activists we want to be; it clarified our paths and helped make our work more meaningful.
- We’re both committed to helping build strong connections between the university and community-based organizations. The work we did together is one of the ways that happens, but we explore the ideas of “community engaged research” and “research engaged practice” to help others explore how their work might better engage outside of their standard working silos.
If you’re setting out on a project like this—one that might push you from your comfort zone and make you grapple with your role in storytelling—we’d like to offer some basic rules that we learned in the process of working together on this story. These rules form the backbone of this essay and are found at the beginning of each section.
Before you go much further, we recommend you listen to the full episode “There’s Nothing more Californian than Ketchup.” While we’ve organized this article to stand alone, without the podcast, you’ll likely glean much more after a listen.
Trust the stories of your interviewees to guide you, but talk to plenty of people to find balance. Seek an understanding of all the perspectives at your institution or in your community—and make sure your audience knows who you, the story producer, represent (or at least work for).
To tell the story of the mechanical tomato harvester, we called upon people who were closely involved in its creation and the backlash against it. While the engineers who invented it are no longer alive, academics at UC Davis and California historians know the story well and provide first-hand accounts of the harvester’s release. We spoke with activists who first protested against the harvester, farmers who were impacted, academics who testified in court, and the lawyers who litigated the harvester lawsuit.
Through the story production process, we learned more about our own institutions, and how we were actually part of the story we sought to tell.
ICC: Do you want to say who you are?
AT: I’m Aubrey Thompson. I’m currently the Community Engagement Manager for the Environmental Health Sciences Center here at UCD. I was previously at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute which is the role I was in when we did this project . . .
[. . .] That org has been around for 10 years. . . . But the name to really remember is UC SAREP [UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program] and that program was started as a legislative mandate following the tomato harvester lawsuits that took place.
ICC: Ok, well I am sitting here with Aubrey. I’m Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, I direct the Cal Ag Roots project. [. . .] And the org that I work for, CIRS [California Institute for Rural Studies], has its roots in this particular conflict over the development of the tomato harvester.
AT: The podcast “There’s Nothing More Californian Than Ketchup” is a story of an instance when the public university did not serve the public evenly. It served some needs and did not serve others.
At the heart of the tomato harvester story is a tension over who has access to the university, and how the university accepts and addresses criticism of its work. As a UC Davis employee heading into her tenth year of service to the University as either a student or staff member, Aubrey grappled with telling this story as a university insider alongside a story critical of the university. For Aubrey, her path within the university is focused on making it a more accessible and public-serving institution. Her work in community engagement and science communication is all about making connections between researchers and the public need, and making complex science understandable and useful for those without advanced scientific training.
But the issue of directly criticizing the work of the university presents a different challenge. Is an internal staff member free to criticize? Or should she, as a representative of her institution, defend its mission and work? For Aubrey, she found her role more as an arbiter, working to understand and empower ideas and intentions both inside and outside the university. Often, it’s the groups outside of the university that need a louder microphone to be heard in place of power like universities.
AT: I learned through this process that it’s ok, as a staff member of the U, to be critical of the U, but that it has to be . . . it’s almost like it has to be done as an external voice . . . trying to bring an external voice internal, you know? In some ways I’m an open door or something to allow it a space inside of the walls of the university.
ICC: So you needed a community partner, or somebody on the outside, to knock on that door or stroll through that open doorway in order to raise those questions and tell that story? Is that fair to say?
AT: Yeah, I think so. That’s not to say that I work at a place that says you’re not allowed to be critical . . . but I think that for the story, this kind of story is about the community perspective and that it does require that partnership with an outside org to bring that into the fold.
Of course, collaborations inside and outside of the university are not just about critique. Carolina Balazs and Rachel Morello-Frosch, among many others, argue that community-based participatory research—that is, research that incorporates non-university partners in the research design and implementation—can increase the relevance, rigor, and reach of science.1 Building partnerships with people directly impacted by research, or designing research to respond to the needs of those people, strengthens the work.
For Ildi, the reciprocal is also true: communities benefit from engaging with public institutions like the university. She terms this “research-engaged practice,” which builds on a long tradition of thought related to community-engaged scholarship. Building those connections and the capacity for each of these groups to engage with each other are key goals for both of us in our own roles.
AT: I wonder if we could each talk about those two terms—community-engaged scholarship and research-engaged practice. How do you see it and what do you see as Cal Ag Roots’ role in it?
ICC: You want me to go first? [. . .] I think there’s an increasing number of scholars now that put themselves in the community-engaged scholarship camp, so really wanting to be vitally engaged over the long term with communities to produce data that is relevant to them and that creates change.
AT: I think there’s a spectrum of community-engaged scholarship and that the . . . there is a guiding light of research being guided by communities: that communities are able to come to the university and ask for something and that the university researchers are able to deliver something to them that is in an equitable partnership, that at the outset they know who owns the data and where things are going and what they’ll be used for. But at the same time communities know the research process, they know how to identify what good research is and what high-quality research is. And they can see it, and they question it, and they can engage with it.
ICC: I firmly put Cal Ag Roots in a “research-engaged practice” vein. I think that’s a big part of our goal. To encourage people to be informed about where we’ve been and to be prepared to reach out to a whole set of paid public thinkers who are theorizing and collecting data and informing our understanding of the world and who are ready and wanting to work with community members.
[. . .] I think it’s really important that this project illuminates who’s doing thinking particularly around food and farming in our public research institutions and that we make those people available to folks outside of the university. If that could be one of the things that Cal Ag Roots accomplishes, that would be really cool.
If you work for a university or advocacy organization, your story is not a piece of journalism. Use that fact to improve your story—seek feedback on your script, work with your interviewees to make sure you get the story right. Use every step of the storytelling process to understand your own role at your institution.
Throughout the storytelling process, we kept running into the same tension: how can we tell this story objectively when we work for institutions that have and want their own voices? This storytelling project originated from Ildi’s work as an advocate, and she approached the story with an explicit goal of informing future advocacy efforts in the so-called California food movement. So together, we had to wrestle with how to do that while respecting the sensitivity around this story within the university.
We consistently remind ourselves that we are storytellers, not journalists. While we did strive for balance, we did not consider ourselves neutral reporters. We wanted to maintain independence as storytellers but not so much that we restricted people from providing direct feedback on how we told the story, particularly from UC SAREP, the organization the story was partially about. In the end, we felt like our approach provided good scaffolding for the story.
AT: I became intimately aware of that history through my time there and talking with people who had worked there in its inception over the years, and was able to speak as a representative of that organization, right? Like, I didn’t separate myself in our podcast as not a representative of that org—which brought its own challenges when we had to write scripts that met the needs of SAREP as a stakeholder.
ICC: Were you running scripts by people in the org?
AT: We ran one script by . . . I think the reaction was positive . . . But the reaction was in part that SAREP always feels slightly under threat of losing its funding. And like so many institutes at universities that’s maybe not the straight-and-narrow, or mainstream, I guess, so some of the reaction from people was “you need to boost the language about the positive things that SAREP has done in the story.” And we did that.
[. . .] I think it impacted how we ended the story, too. We were a little bit less negative at the end, and a little more inquisitive. Which I think was actually better. [. . .] We ended the podcast with these questions of how do we develop these partnerships and how do we get the university to be better responsive to community needs? And so I think their feedback was good—if at times we felt like it . . . we questioned the integrity of the story-telling.
[. . .] But we kind of had to keep remembering, this isn’t journalism. We’re not journalists. We are two people with perspectives and with roles in this story, in some way, you know?
ICC: We didn’t take the teeth out of the story, but it made it a story that could be heard within the wall of the institution. Which was pretty powerful . . . I mean, I think that if there’s a place that needs to hear it. [. . .] The fact that it had a track inside the university was really important to the life of the story.
The story’s potential reach inside of the university was important. But for Ildi—who was beginning to articulate the Cal Ag Roots Project’s role in the current California food movement—how the story played outside of the university mattered just as much.
ICC: Well, there was another layer to my identity at the time, which is that I was fresh out of grad school at UC Davis, which is the place—the location of the story. [. . .] That student version of Ildi was really curious about all sides of the story and really blown away by the wonder of the invention and wanted people to recognize what a breakthrough that invention was. And at the same time sort of have a critical lens about who the public university is producing technology for. So at a personal level, I was interested in the complications and the nuances of that story, which is one reason why I think we were a good match at that moment.
[. . .] But the Cal Ag Roots project in general, is designed to put some historical roots on the food movement. So there are goals related to that project that are definitely unique to an organization outside of the university that would have movement-building, strategy-building goals. And this podcast was the first that we produced. So those goals about movement-building were just being articulated.
[. . .] So in an interesting way it’s sort of like this story that emerges from scholarly, student interest—and from the very particular place where I was and where I met you—and then begins to converge with these other goals of an activist org that’s trying to educate and mobilize people for effective change.
[. . .] I’ve never said that out loud before! [Laughter]
So together we had feet firmly planted both inside and outside of a powerful institution, this land-grant university that we were both connected to. And we wondered as we reflected back on the production of this story if there was something special about that moment—when we were both more recently students of the university, when we were forming our identities, when we worked for organizations that were so closely tied to the story we told—that let our collaboration flourish.
ICC: So do you think that was a unique moment?
AT: You mean because you were in this initial thought process of what the strategy of Cal Ag Roots was going to be? No . . . I don’t think that it was particular to that, and I think that in some ways it maybe would be even stronger now because I think we both have a stronger sense of our own . . . the process of this podcast was a lot about navigating what roles we were allowed to play and expected to play in this storytelling process. And I think we both have a stronger sense now of what that role is and what the rules are . . . and what rules we can bend, what boundaries we can push. I think we sifted through it together pretty intensely at that time. And I think if we did it again we would have stronger . . . we would feel more self-confident in it.
ICC: So what rules would you be willing to break with me? [Laughter]
It wasn’t easy to produce this story for all of the reasons that we have explored in this essay. And yet, when we reflect back on the story and the conversations it has sparked about the land-grant university’s mission, the inherent trade-offs at play in technological development, and the relationships between universities and their publics, we know that we would do it all over again. It can pay to deviate from the standard path of academic achievement that is lined with peer-reviewed journal articles. Creative partnerships that extend beyond publishing research can open rewarding doors and sometimes benefit community partners much more than any research paper.
Just recently, Ildi was asked to perform “There’s Nothing More Californian Than Ketchup” at a meeting for UC Cooperative Extension Advisors and Specialists. The story’s balanced university-community perspective combined with the engaging delivery of audio and visual materials created ideal conditions for a rich conversation about the current possibilities for shifting university attention to the social impacts of agricultural research. We expect this story will have long-lasting impacts—and we hope that sharing reflections on our process encourages other researchers to produce audio pieces that spark productive dialogues in other places.
1. Carolina L. Balazs and Rachel Morello-Frosch, “The Three R’s: How Community Based Participatory Research Strengthens the Rigor, Relevance and Reach of Science,” Environ Justice 6, no. 1 (February 2013).
Balazs, Carolina L. and Rachel Morello-Frosch. “The Three R’s: How Community Based Participatory Research Strengthens the Rigor, Relevance and Reach of Science.” Environ Justice vol. 6, no. 1 (February 2013): 10.1089/env.2012.0017.