What We Talk About When We Talk About the Central Valley

Two essays published in the same week offered very different takes on one of America’s most important agricultural regions.

California Aqueduct

The California Aqueduct brings irrigation water to Central Valley farms. (Photo: Nancy Nehring/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

When the one percent wields such incredible influence across the country and around the globe, it understandably becomes fodder for criticism.

In an opinion piece from yesterday’s New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in just such a vein, “There is something stunning in the way the soil has been engineered into precision. Every human imperfection linked with the word ‘farming’ has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded. The angles are more rigid, and more accurate, than the platted but unbuilt streets out where easy credit dried up during the housing crisis.”

This isn’t the phenomenally wealthy we’re talking about, you’ll quickly realize, but rather the one percent of American farmland found in California’s Central Valley. This 450-mile-long swath of land produces nearly a third of our domestic produce harvest. And as the national debate about food, farming, and agriculture edges further into the mainstream, this highly productive agricultural region has become akin to Wall Street for some critics—the place where it’s all gone wrong, a symbol for the failures of industrialized farming.

Klinkenborg falls squarely in that camp, musing on the view tracking past the driver’s side window at 75 miles per hour as he recently passed through the valley on Interstate 5. “I can’t help marveling and despairing at the transformation, the way agriculture, here and elsewhere, has created a landscape that is fundamentally inhuman, devoid of people.”

He goes on to describe the valley as “a place utterly alien to all but a few machine operators wearing hazmat-like suits.” My own observations from the 5 have led me to believe that neckerchief-wearing Latino field hands often dot the fields, but I only moved to California from Iowa in 2008—not in 1966, like Klinkenborg.

In Aeon Magazine, Maria Bustillos takes a similar point of view in an essay published last week, hanging a narrative on a drive along the 5. But she slows down significantly when giving context to the scenery that drivers and passengers (and Klinkenborg) often make snap judgments on.

The most dramatic agricultural sight along the freeway is a gigantic cattle feed lot outside of Coalinga, CA. There’s probably no other roadside landmark that creates as many ardent vegetarians—for a few miles, at least—as the Harris Ranch feed lot. “One commonly hears it referred to as ‘Cowschwitz’,” Bustillos writes. “From the road, the sight of a limitless horde of cows standing in the mud really does suggest a concentration camp. The fact being, of course, that we mean to eat those cows.”

In The New York Times story, the cattle confinement is only alluded to in the greater context of the valley’s notoriously bad air. “There was mingled with it the fetor that rises and spreads from the feedlots and dairies, a stench that shimmers over the valley like a heat mirage,” observes Klinkenborg.

But behind both the stench that Klinkenborg describes so dramatically, and the depressing sight of 100,000 hide’s worth of black-and-white splotches awaiting death, is a more complicated reality: This is a laudable operation. “Large as it is, [Harris Ranch] is exactly the kind of family farm that many are in favor of protecting,” Bustillos writes, pointing out that the cows spend 80 percent of their lives feeding on pasture, and that noted animal scientist Temple Grandin has complimented the animal husbandry and slaughtering practices.  

Klinkenborg only evokes the scent of the confinement as an aside, adding sensory texture to his description of the valley. But the fact that such a disgusting sight and smell may actually be the very thing a critic of industrial farming should be advocating for can speak to the valley as a whole too. This is a place where a carrot farm that’s at least partially certified organic can produce an inconceivable harvest: six million pounds a day. In Mark Bittman’s New York Times Magazine story about the region, for which he visited that carrot producer, Bolthouse Farms, he also reports that itinerant Hmong famers, who grow diversified crops on small, rented plots of land, may be the ones who are guilty of not nurturing the most important resource in farming: the soil.

There’s no doubt that the agriculture industry presents significant problems, both here and elsewhere. Particular to this part of California is the region’s slow downward slump—the very floor of the valley is sinking, a dramatic consequence of pumping water out of the underground aquifer to irrigate crops. Klinkenborg notes that the United States Geological Survey calls the change “the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface.”

Water politics are indeed as much a part of the valley’s landscape as the endless rows of almond and peach trees. While the soil here is some of the best in the world, the rainfall is negligible, and it is water pumped up from the aquifer or sluiced down the California Aqueduct that makes farming possible. Eighty percent of California’s water supply is used by the agriculture sector, and depending on the rainfall in any given year, farmers’ cries to have more water delivered to the valley go from loud to deafening. There is no love lost between landholders and the Delta Smelt, the endangered species of fish that, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has worked to protect its Sacramento River Delta habitat, are seen as keeping water away from their crops.

But the Delta Smelt and an increasingly dry aquifer aren’t the only threats to agriculture in the valley. It may look “devoid of people” from Klinkenborg’s car, but the urban sprawl of cities like Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton are bleeding out in the surrounding farmland. According to a recent report from the American Farmland Trust, 443,000 acres were taken out of production between 1990 and 2008. Water issues accounted for much of that, but “nearly 100,000 acres—8.5 square miles a year—were converted permanently to urban uses,” according to the report. Farming may be resource intensive, but humans, with their lawns and showers and swimming pools, aren’t exactly drought-tolerant.

Writing on report, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Amanda Eaken and Dana Gunders note, “Farmland has the potential to do more than just produce food. Farms can be working lands that provide habitat, filter water, and sequester greenhouse gases. This only happens when farming is done right, but it certainly doesn’t happen when a house sits on that same land.”

To write about California is to follow in Joan Didion’s footsteps, and Klinkenborg refernces her 1966 article “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” to open his essay: 

I drove down the San Joaquin Valley along Interstate 5 the other day. It was a tour of the less populous California, a route that—to borrow a 50-year-old phrase from Joan Didion—is also “the trail of an intention gone haywire.”

Didion was writing about murder in San Bernardino in that story. But as a native of Sacramento and a longtime resident of Los Angeles, Didion is intimate with water issues in California, and she wrote about them in “Holy Water.” Ostensibly about a visit to the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project, the essay, like most of her writing on the Golden State, is an effort to lay bare the armature behind the myth of California.

“It is easy to forget that the only natural force over which we have any control out here is water, and that only recently,” she wrote in 1979, before listing the still-inhospitable nature of the place: recent fires, an earthquake, drought.  

The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way. I know as well as the next person that there is considerable transcendent value in a river running wild and undimmed, a river running free over granite, but I have also lived beneath such a river when it was running in flood, and gone without showers when it was running dry.

The valley may be sinking, but Klikenborg’s dire assertion that “Every scenario for the future of the valley must begin with what is now a biological desert, a place where only a handful of species are allowed to thrive,” feels overstated. The produce farms here are diverse, as are the approaches to agriculture—conventional, organic, biodynamic. Asking if we’re doing right by our arable land is a question worth asking, but suggesting, as Klinkeborg seems to, that this key farming region is nearly post-apocalyptic, is to go far beyond oversimplifying the debate. The Central Valley undeniably has its problems, but I don’t want to have the experience, like Didion did with her floods and without her showers, of what it’s like when the fields run completely dry.

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