A day later, I am now driving westward on Manning Avenue, for about 60 miles to I-5 through the towns of Raisin City and San Joaquin, dissecting the corporate farms of the West Side. A few things are striking in a way not true even a decade ago. Agriculture has never seemed more productive or lucrative. New orchards and vineyards are going in everywhere. Sky-high prices for alfalfa, row crops, nuts, fruits, and wheat show in the face of the land. Water is scarcer and more likely to be cut off — and yet even more brilliantly squeezed out and metered by sophisticated computerized drip-irrigation regimes.
Tractors are both even bigger and look right off the lot. There is a feeling of neatness — no junk piles, no burn piles, no paper and trash blowing over the road. One can smell money, as in billions of dollars in export cash pouring in from India, China, Japan, and South Korea. Of course, few live out here in the land of corporate latifundia. But these vast agribusiness conglomerates, to the eye almost on autopilot, are earning billions of dollars for their owners, and a good life for their fewer and fewer employees, as machines make the old hard work rarer.
I pull over for a bit to watch a skilled driver in a huge John Deere with a mega-ripper, prepping a field for planting. In the 1980s I drove what I thought was a large 100 hp Allis-Chalmers, with a four-foot ripping blade to develop a new, small vineyard. In comparison, this tractor is a colossus — enclosed temperature-controlled cab, and the expert driver on a cell phone. In one swath, he covers the same ground I did in four, but straighter, deeper, and just better all around. My Allis smoked, his John Deere seems to have no exhaust.
When I wrote Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, I compared a land of agrarian communities that once grew families and cultures with a Mendota and San Joaquin out here, pyramidal societies, more Egyptian than Hellenic, in which a tiny top lorded over a large bottom, with very little middle in between. That’s truer than ever. But it is also accurate to confess that never have so few produced so much food so cheaply for so many throughout the world.
In other words, the world gone by of my youth and early middle age — small 40-acre and 80-acre orchards and vineyards, farmhouses with real owners living in them, three or four children working with a dad in the fields, a mother overseeing the books and taking her turn on the tractor in the hectic season — is dead. That agrarian culture is gone, vanished, kaput. Central California’s once agrarian east side now operates like out here on the West Side.
Yet with agrarian demise, food production soared with economies of scale and decisions that were entirely market-based and not culturally predicated on tradition and morality. Is this good or bad news, both or neither — you decide; I cannot any longer. I know a nice guy who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars speculating and merchandising land to pension funds, EU expatriates, and celebrity investors. He does not know a spring-tooth from a flat furrower, and is richer for the ignorance. And I know a cranky, obnoxious old-timer holdout who still farms his small acreage and snaps at his workers. I want to believe that the latter is superior to the former, but I have seen too much in the last thirty years to be able to tell any more. Does someone in Africa who eats cheap U.S. wheat or rice say, “Thank God for mass food production?”
Dr. Hanson is describing the place I live and grew up in. The San Joaquin is one of the most (if not the most) productive agricultural areas in the world.
By some estimates, federal restrictions on shallow well irrigation systems threaten the productivity of the San Joaquin Valley, which produces the majority of the 12.8% of the United States’ agricultural production (as measured by dollar value) that comes from California. Grapes—table, raisin, and to a lesser extent wine—are perhaps the valley’s highest-profile product, but equally (if not more) important are cotton, nuts (especially almonds and pistachios), citrus, and vegetables. Though it has been called “The food basket of the World”, the San Joaquin Valley has not been nationally recognized for the diversity of its produce. Oranges, peaches, garlic, tangerines, tomatoes, kiwis, hay, alfalfa and numerous other crops have been harvested with great success. The J. G. Boswell Company’s farming operation in Kings County is the largest single cotton farm in the world, occupying over 162 square kilometres (40,000 acres). Certain places are identified quite strongly with a given crop: Stockton produces the majority of the domestic asparagus consumed in the United States, and Fresno is the largest producer of the raisin, originally a Middle Eastern commodity.
In spite of its agricultural productivity, the San Joaquin Valley has the state’s highest rate of food insecurity.
Cattle and sheep ranching are also vitally important to the valley’s economy. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Miller & Lux corporation built an agricultural monopoly centered around cattle. The success of the business can be attributed to his direct management style which is reflected in his detailed correspondences to his subordinates. During recent years, dairy farming has greatly expanded in importance.
From age five until twelve I spent my evenings and weekends on a farm labor camp on a Del Monte peach ranch just outside Planada in Merced County, an hour north of the place Hanson describes. (During the weekdays I stayed with my grandmother in Merced while my mom worked.) Miles and miles of peach orchards, now all gone. But the land is still in use growing tomatoes.
These days the San Joaquin Valley doubles as a welfare slum for all the poor people priced out of LA and the SF Bay Area. We got lots of drugs and crime now. But hey, we’re getting a $100 billion high speed rail line!