Waking Up From the California Dream

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We’ve been back in Texas for two weeks now but part of me – the dreamer part – is still in California. I’m still dreaming of green fields — straight, weedless, bug-free rows of every fruit and vegetable imaginable. I’m dreaming of a thousand acres of strawberries and the machine-like crews of workers harvesting them by the truckload. I’m dreaming of summer highs that rarely break 80 degrees and bountiful farmers markets selling perfect organic produce at half the price we sell in Austin.

California dreaming comes easy when you’re faced with another month of 100-degree temperatures, weeds as tall as small trees and grasshoppers as big as hummingbirds. Today I shook hands with my pal, Bull Nettle, and knew I was back on the farm. If there’s bull nettle in California, I’m sure it has no sting and is sold as an herbal tea remedy – for Texasitis.

Our first glimpse of the unnatural growing machine known as California’s Central Valley came to us after three days exploring Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Kings Canyon is home to Giant Sequoias. The great Central Valley below is home to Giant Agriculture.  When it comes to trees and vegetables, Texas Big can’t compete with the Golden State.

For vegetable growers anywhere, the Central Valley is Mecca – the phenomenal epicenter of both conventional and organic production, and all the issues that arise when unbounded capitalism is married to seemingly boundless resources.  It happened with the sequoias in the Sierras. It happened with sardines and mackerel in Monterey Bay. Now it’s happening with water in the Central Valley

Like Texas, California is gripped in a devastating drought. The day we descended into the valley, the massive Rim Fire started 75 miles to the north.  Two weeks later  it was still threatening Yosemite Park and San Francisco’s drinking water. With this year’s snowmelt at historic lows, we saw reservoirs at half capacity – from deep-walled Lake Meade in Nevada to the wide open San Luis containment near Fresno. Rivers were running nearly dry by the time they reached the valley.

For five carefree days we stayed at Deep Roots Farm in Watsonville, courtesy of our Austin friends Peter and Sally Struble . The owners, Jeanne and Bob, run a grass-fed sheep and cow operation on 56 acres. They had not seen rain in six months and now, the dry season upon them, their pastures looked frightfully brown, even more so because they are surrounded on all sides by the great green miracle of modern farming.

Talk about intensive farming, the valley makes up only 1% of the nation’s farmland yet produces 8% of its agricultural output. The right mix of soil, sun and seasonable temperatures make it possible, along with growing practices that rely on an arsenal of chemicals, petro-based fertilizer, plastic mulch, and a massive migrant labor force.

Don’t get me wrong. California farming is a marvel to behold. It feeds much of the nation and makes a small organic farmer like me seem as insignificant as a drop in the bucket. But here’s the thing. The bucket has a pretty big leak and you have to wonder if science and technology and human ingenuity can patch up it fast enough.

Deep Roots Farm is a rare throwback to earlier farming here – it actually has a barn and a diversity of animals and trees. Its symphony of natural sounds — sheep, cows, chickens, geese, and guinea hens –offset the spit-spit-spit of irrigation guns and loose plastic flapping in the breeze. Odd as it seems, there is little role for small farms here. They are like a thorn in Big Ag’s side. And they are threatened from above and below as well – changing weather patterns, polluted aquifers, increased regulations. One day Bob pointed up to bare ledge in the distant hills – the San Andreas Fault; even their property lines have shifted over the years. Like the invasive ground squirrels that tunnel through their fields, a visitor like us, so used to wide open spaces, starts to feel a sense of occupation, as if these countless high tunnels housed an alien force just waiting for these old-fashioned farmers to surrender.

In nearby Watsonville we stopped at ALBA, the oldest organic incubator farm in the country. Tony, its distribution manager, told us it takes seven years to restore conventional farmland back to natural productivity. The worst enemy of organics is the big spray rigs that still fumigate the soil with methyl bromide, which was supposed to be phased out eight years ago but scientists haven’t found an effective alternative yet. Rotating conventional fields with cover crops is too expensive and so fields have simply become sterile growing medium for a synthetic life-support system.  No wonder the workers in the fields cover every inch of their bodies.

We left Deep Roots early in the morning and already the workers were in the field picking strawberries – a grueling, monotonous routine from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. Our last image of the Central Valley was the truck ahead of us overloaded with plastic mulch torn out of the fields and headed to the landfill.

Yes, we came home to the Texas summertime blues but Green Gate Farms never felt so welcoming and right. The deep roots we’ve put down here may be small but they are natural and long-lasting. And that’s no dream.