California's Agriculture: The Dreamt Land
May 17, 2019 1:38 AM   Subscribe

An excerpt from The Dreamt Land, a new book by Mark Arax.... This was fertility supercharged by irrigation and the science of the Agricultural College at the University of California—the most extensive and intensive farming experiment in the world. No other landscape in history had been so bent by the designs of man. The Great Central Valley, 450 miles long and 60 miles wide, had resembled in its natural state a rolling savanna not unlike the Serengeti. Then a man named Porteous invented the Fresno Scraper, a five-foot-wide hunk of sheet iron that revolutionized the movement of dirt.

The scraper reconfigured the valley field by field, leveling hillocks and hog wallows and filling in gulches, a huge continuous flattening that allowed the waters of irrigation to move like a cue ball across green felt.

... The farmers were gritty and brave and not a little greedy. They weren't satisfied with the flow of the rivers alone. With the advent of the turbine pump, they were now mining the ancient groundwater stored deep in the earth. Across Tulare County, farmers counted 739 pumps in 1909. A decade later, the pumps numbered 3,758. This extraction was causing the water table to plummet 10 feet a year in many spots. Strangely, the land itself was sinking, first in inches and then in feet. The sound of earth's subsidence was silence. The sound that greeted my grandfather upon his arrival in raisin town was anything but.

In the hardpan of northwest Fresno, Jesse Clayton Forkner, half farmer, half real estate buccaneer, was blasting the earth to plant the world's biggest garden of figs—600,000 trees. "The whole town was booming," my grandfather recalled. "I thought it was an earthquake. And then I thought, 'I'm in the middle of war again.' Boom. Boom. The ground shook. It was dynamite. Blast after blast. They were bombing the earth. They were planting figs. The Kadota. Luscious and golden yellow. And the new variety, the Calimyrna."

posted by Bella Donna (6 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
"The way we breed fruit isn't for taste but for shipping. The way we grow fruit isn't for the tongue but for the eye. We harvest early so the fruit doesn't go soft by the time it reaches the market. What does it matter that it tastes like wet cardboard?"
That reminds me of the apple example from the tongue-in-cheek Systemantics:
For example, you have a desire for a fresh apple. (a) Nonsystems approach: You may (if you are very lucky and the season is right) stroll out of your farmhouse door and down to the orchard where you pick a dead-ripe, luscious specimen right off the tree. ... (c) A large system serving the same function is the supermarket chain. The apples are picked green and placed in "controlled atmosphere" storage.... The resulting product is called a "fresh apple" but in texture and flavor it bears little resemblance to (a) above.

The importance of Korzybski's contribution to understanding systems is now apparent. An apple that has been processed through the supermarket system is not the same as an apple picked dead ripe off the tree, and we are in error to use the same word for two different things.
posted by clawsoon at 5:23 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]

One of my first jobs was to investigate a disease of carrots in California. The disease was not very serious to the carrot; it didn't affect yield directly. It did, however, weaken the petioles of the leaves, which precluded the use of a harvesting machine that pulled up the carrots by yanking on the petioles. So I used to have to drive to Bakersfield once in a while, past huge trucks filled with carrots roaring down the narrow road. The sides of the road were orange with carrots that had fallen from the trucks.

The job after that was to work on invasive weeds in California rangeland. Because of agriculture and overgrazing, a lot of the plant life in central California consists of alien invaders. Someone once took me to see an ephemeral vernal pool in the spring. Around pools like that just as the rainy season ended, you could see some of the native wildflowers bloom. Briefly, you could imagine what California used to look like.

After that I worked on "sudden oak death", an invasive disease killing hundreds of thousands of oak trees across the west coast. Recently I went on a tour of the "ground zero" area where the disease was first noticed in the 1990s. The trees were now skeletons, a severe fire hazard. The loss of the shade the trees used to cast allowed the growth of invasive weeds that couldn't live there before. The birds and deer had many fewer acorns to eat. The ranger leading us said that tourists had no idea that this wasn't the way the forest ought to look; they didn't know anything had happened.

I never got over the flatness of the Central Valley. I would ride my bike to work alongside fields that had been leveled with the help of laser-tools. As the sun rose over the newly plowed fields, the sunlight would reflect over silk strands from spiders covering the field with a continuous silvery sheen for miles.
posted by acrasis at 5:33 AM on May 17 [22 favorites]

I have heard that about half of the nation's produce comes from California, with dozens of crops grown almost exclusively in California. California's Central Valley is all about water. Marc Reisner's book Cadillac Desert is about water management in the Western US, and it has a sizable portion about the development of California's water systems.

The state's water, when it comes, falls in the wrong places and during the wrong time of the year. This means that a massive system of over 1,000 dams and hundreds of miles of canals are needed collect and distribute the snow runoff for domestic use, but the vast majority goes to agriculture. In order to encourage farming 100+ years ago, water rates were set artificially low, with the additional costs picked up by the government. The agricultural lobby is still powerful enough that the water rates are still insanely low. The image of the self-sufficient farmer with his family working the land is pretty much gone, almost all agriculture is run by massive conglomerates.

Up until a few years ago, private water wells were almost entirely unregulated. You could pump as much water as you wanted out of your own well. Plus the well boring logs were considered proprietary information, so the public couldn't see how deep the wells ran into the water table. Add to that the cultivation of water intense crops such as almonds, melons, cotton, and rice. Rice fields are essentially massive shallow ponds covering acres and acres, the amount of water lost to evaporation. Areas with the best soil were where the towns were founded and grew.

As the population grew, more and more of this prime farmland was paved over for urban expansion. This pushes agriculture further into less hospitable soils that require additional infrastructure to maintain or boost the crop yields.

I graduated from the Agricultural College at the University of California. It is now UC-Davis and has been a standalone campus since the 50's. I didn't pursue an agricultural degree, but agriculture is in every fiber of the school's history and culture. They are called Aggies. The campus has more acreage than any other school in the UC System, but 90% of it is farm fields. The intro in Animal Science class was famous because one of the assignments for the class was to castrate a sheep. There was an elective in Tractor Driving, which was popular, because, hey, why not get school credit learning how to drive a tractor? The vast majority of students are in non-agricultural programs, but it still everywhere around the campus. Davis California is surrounded by farm fields for miles in any direction, even though it is 15 miles outside of Sacramento.

For three summers I drove tomato trucks, shuffling massive open top bins of canning tomatoes from the field to the canneries. These are certainly not the pretty table tomatoes you put in salad and sandwiches. They are smaller, and have a tougher skin on them. Almost all of the processed domestic tomato products (tomato sauce, ketchup, canned) come from the Central Valley, typically with several brands coming out of the same cannery. During tomato season you can spot every bump in the highway because about 30 feet past it there is a little field of canning tomatoes. They don't go splat, they bounce. The legendarily bad horror movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was inspired by the random tomatoes that fall of off the trucks and can bounce around on the highway and onto cars. It didn't really seem like summer until you drove past a tomato cannery and got a whiff of the sickly bittersweet smell of tomatoes being steamed.

Sorry for the novel.
posted by Badgermann at 7:32 AM on May 17 [21 favorites]

No apology needed, that was great! acrasis, I should note that The Dreamt Land is also about water. I would love to read both books.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:00 AM on May 17 is an interesting history of the first organized settlers to the region.

Being in the hinterlands of the Bay Area, it wasn’t utterly isolated, but there was a lot of hard, hard work required to establish farming in the valley.

The corruption of land speculation was rife, alas.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:54 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

I just bought and tried some Cotton Candy grapes. Those are some weird-ass tasting grapes.
posted by clawsoon at 4:04 PM on May 19

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