“The world’s richest agricultural valley”

This coming Sunday, The New York Times Magazine will feature its Food & Drink Issue, but you can already sample the contents online. Center-stage you’ll find (who else?) Mark Bittman on a reader-suggested trip to California’s Central Valley:

After reviewing the suggestions, it became clear that readers wanted an article that incorporated big farming, small farming, sustainability, politics, poverty and, of course, truly delicious food — and in the United States, if possible. So I decided to head to the Central Valley, where all of this was already happening. This also happened to satisfy a curiosity of mine. From a desk in New York, it’s impossible to fathom 50 m.p.h. carrots, hills of almonds, acres of basil and millions of tomatoes all ripening at once. How can all of this possibly work?

But I was also inclined to head to the valley because I know that, for the last century or so, we’ve been exploiting ­­ — almost without limitation — its water, mineral resources, land, air, people and animals. Mark Arax, a writer who lives in Fresno and has chronicled the region’s past and present, offered his opinion while serving me and a dozen others marinated lamb, a terrific recipe from his Armenian family: “This land and its water have gone mostly to the proposition of making a few men very wealthy and consigning generations of others, especially farmworkers, to lives in the dust.” I’d already seen an example of how wealth has been concentrated and captured in the valley: this summer, Campbell’s bought Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion. Meanwhile, there are thousands of valley farmworkers who are often victims of wage-theft and (illegally) required to supply their own tools.

So for five days I drove through the southern half of the valley. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the agriculture in America’s produce factory; where thoughtful farmers were leading it; and how — if at all — it might become sustainable.


Central Valley cherries. Photo by mhall209 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Check out Bittman’s full essay here.

Then, for a closer look at some of the smaller-scale farming that’s happening amidst all the giant agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley—the southern end of the Central Valley, which is where Bittman also spent his time—check out this piece in Gastronomica by Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland):

There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.

On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as [Tom] Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms [also featured in Bittman’s piece] grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”

The governor of the local Slow Food chapter, Willey is a stubborn pioneer among a group of agricultural contrarians who are bucking the cycle of commodity production in the Central Valley—what he calls “producing food widgets.” He ticked off other like-minded mavericks. Hidden in plain sight amidst huge industrial farms, they include a grower of the world’s sweetest apricots; a rancher whose cattle spend their entire lives eating grass on pasture; a third-generation Japanese American rice-producing brother and sister team who still adhere to the standards of quality established by their grandfather; and a born-again factory-scale dairy farmer turned farmstead cheesemaker who has won the highest awards in the world.

Head here for Estabrook’s full article.


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