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The Big-Ag Landscape In California’s Central Valley

Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

Corn grows in fields in the Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison



Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.

2 COMMENTS
  • Julia della Croce 9·22·14

    Thanks for writing this very important article, Deborah. It’s so very troubling and we all need to know about it.

  • Tom Frantz 9·23·14

    We don’t grow pecans and garbanzos in the San Joaquin Valley. There are also more acres of hay and silage than any other crop. We will no doubt cut back on total irrigated acres because of global warming. The valley will not become a desert because it never was one.

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