CIRS Blog about Rural California

Jonathan London and Ted Bradshaw


This essay is based on research being conducted for a book by Jonathan London, Ted Bradshaw and Ed Blakely. Ted Bradshaw passed away before this article was written but the concepts and structure were developed in conversation with Jonathan London. In honor of these intellectual influences, this article is credited as a co-authored piece.



For those who care about rural places, whether scholars or practitioners (or, in the case of these authors, both) the inadequacy of analytical frameworks for understanding and therefore intervening in rural change is troubling. Alternately framed as an immaterial anachronism in an increasingly dominant metroscape; a victim of over-determined and extractive structures of modernity, capitalism, and globalization; a romanticized lost agrarian world, or an uncritical site of local progress, the dominant rural discourses provide little basis for satisfying intellectual or political projects.

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census black and white


When most Americans think of California, they typically conjure up visions of beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, Silicon Valley, or an urban/suburban lifestyle. But for many decades, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, California also has had more rural residents than any of the eleven western-most states of the contiguous forty-eight. Census 2000 found California’s rural population totaled 1,876,753 persons, nearly twice as large as second-ranked Washington state’s non-urban population (Census 2010 has not yet reported rural population findings).  

Rural economies of California have been historically dominated by natural resource production (some would say “exploitation”): farming, ranching, fishing, logging, mining and hunting. During the past several decades, only farming has experienced real growth in economic terms, largely due to a major expansion of the annual output of high value commodities, such as fruits and nuts, vegetables, ornamentals and dairy products.

California’s agricultural success story is illustrated by the fact that nine of the ten U.S. counties with the largest value of farm production are located within the state. But the fishing and logging industries are in serious decline and may never recover, while mining and hunting long ago depleted their natural resource bases.

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