Reprinted from Raise: What 4-H Teaches Seven Million Kids and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever with permission from University of California Press
If I had undertaken this project eighty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have had to venture far from Oakland to find farm kids. From the archivist at a local historical society, I learned that in 1930, if I had stood facing west on top of Mount Diablo, the highest peak in the area, I would have seen several cities: Berkeley and Oakland due west, and a little farther south, a smaller one called Hayward. Farms would have stretched out around the cities. The biggest wouldn’t have been more than several hundred acres, with a modest house and barn set into a shady corner. If I had climbed down from the mountain and walked the field, I would have seen orchards—cherry trees in the north, almond and apricot trees in the south, and pear and plum trees scattered throughout. In the city of Hayward I would have seen Hunt’s Cannery, where trucks brought tomatoes for canning every fall. The strong odor of tomatoes, the historian told me, overwhelmed the town from August through October.
Although most of the farms grew one or two crops to sell, each had a large vegetable garden where the farmer’s family grew its own food: green peas, fava beans, rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, sugar beets, squash, and currants. Most households kept chickens for eggs, along with a few other animals: a dairy cow or two, maybe a few sheep.
Few of these farmers were rich, but almost all lived comfortably, with enough food for the family and a little extra cash to spend at the county fair, the highlight of every summer. A good number of the farm kids raised animals to show at the fair, many through 4-H. All the teenagers attended Hayward Union High School, where many joined the thriving chapter of Future Farmers of America, logging hours every afternoon at the school’s farm.
The population of the Hayward area grew from about seven thousand in 1940 to seventy-two thousand in 1960. During the intervening decades, the landscape changed quickly. Developers bought up the orchards and field and converted them to subdivisions, wooing potential buyers with the promise of safe, quiet neighborhoods just a short drive away from Oakland and San Francisco. By 1957, with more people settling in south Hayward, the school district gave up Hayward Union High School’s Future Farmers of America plot in order to build a new high school. In 1981 Hunt’s Cannery, which had operated for a century, moved its operations to California’s Central Valley, as did many of the other nearby canneries and farm-related businesses.