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Works and Days

Five Days of Hope and Despair

March 19th, 2013 - 12:04 am

Day Two. An Agricultural Miracle

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?”

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So we of Professor Hansen's generation know and know it deep down that the world in which we grew up no longer exists. It is nice to reflect on what the Neo America is becoming but it is nostalgic to think that it ever would return to the past. The past is gone and is never coming back. The old America with its various vices and virtues is gone down history's memory hole. The English Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh who was a consumate pessimist about his modern world was once asked how he got through each day with his attitude. He related the story that he had owned an old English country house which was in bad repair and had decided to sell it. He said that after he sold it he would walk through it and would no longer care or worry about the various leaks and needed repairs because he realized that it was no longer his house, just as the modern world was no longer his world. It is no longer myhouse, Prof Hansen, and that is the best way to look at it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Waxwing,

I spoke with God this morning. He told me to tell you that you are not listening and to double up on your Zyprexa.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (50)
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I think you may have misunderestimated the situation, Dr. Hanson. The students weren't there to read, write and learn anything; they were practicing the on-the-job skills they will need when they graduate and go to work for the government!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
At the end of Amity Schales' "Coolidge" she noted the comparison between Coolidge's 300 acres of mostly rock and wood farm in Vermont with Herbert Hoover's 1200 acres near Bakersfield.

Professor Davis seemed to have made a similar comparison today between his small holdings and the big corporate farms on the West side of the valley, 80 years later.

I wonder how much would change with the big farms if the ethanol mandate was removed?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Soon-to-be" high speed rail...
LOL!!!!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I still miss the card catalog in the library! You could easily read a paragraph about each book in the order they were on the shelves. It was so quick and easy to use.

There have always been people that want to be seen going to the library, or seen in the library, that aren't there to read books. The Celsus Library in Ephesus (177 AD), had shelves for 12,000 scrolls and a secret passage to the high-end house of prostitution.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How convenient, waxwing01!!!
Third world communities have a habit of accommodating this for prophets like yourself.
You can use this in your next sermon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Now THIS is the kind of column I have hoped for from VDH since I came to PJM. Historical perspective, not partisan sniping. Nicely done.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
When you wish upon a star...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The library at my old college has gone the same way. The first floor used to be the stacks with working tables here and there. Now the first floor is mostly open with wifi and rooms for watching movies. The wall that used to stand protectively between the cafeteria and the books is gone. The books themselves are on the second floor and rarely visited anymore because it is easier to look up something online, cut, paste, print, without the mind absorbing a thing.

The only books downstairs are the ones the library is selling. They are ignored by the students but you see older locals coming in to browse. I myself have saved many and added them to my own library.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is no time for nostalgia for premodern times. Life for the majority was "nasty, brutal, and short." Modernity with all its faults should be evaluated and celebrated. But it can go in different directions, as I laid out here: http://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/. I prefer Sinai, and perhaps some PJM readers and Dr. Hanson will join me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hate to be the bearer of conflicting news but....

The techie stuff aside, the atmosphere as described, could have well been from some of the smaller more rural states campus libraries I experienced in the 50s. Study groups visiting, snacking, some relaxing (snoozing) and some exploring for their next date (tutor of course). Then I remember libraries from the late 60s and early 70s especially, UCSB -- purely great entertainment, guitars and singing groups sitting on the floors, poetry groups sitting around, etc.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I appreciate what VDH says about the upside of agribusiness. At the same time, I wonder if there is not a market for very small, intensive produce farms that can supply fresh (and therefore delicious) fruits and vegetables to the Bay Area and L.A.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Anchorage has almost 11,000 heating degree days and has had measurable snowfall at the airport in every month except July, so it isn't exactly agriculture friendly. Yet, the Matanuska Valley, forty miles from downtown ANC, has a thriving small scale agriculture based solely on "fresh" and "Alaska grown." It is only a June, July, and August thing except for root crops like carrots and potatoes, but there are several thriving farmers' markets and even Safeway makes a big deal of local, especially local and organic, produce.

All that said, I don't know how much any of the farmers are really making. The Farmers' Market nearest me has a steady stream of Bimmers, Benz's, and Volvos every Saturday, but one day a week, three or four months a year doesn't seem like a great income stream to me. Here at least they have the advantage of very low taxes, unlike CA, but the short season and high costs for everything else is its own set of issues.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I vaguely recall some impressive crops in the fields near the Univ. of Fairbanks (or whatever you call it.) Those super-long summer days make for some monster veggies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hi D,

Did you get a monster cucumber at Fred Meyer's? Of was that fireworks?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Farmer's markets around here are trying to go year-round with jams, jellies, and greenhouse stuff. Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" on eating local for a year opened my eyes to some of the year-round stuff that goes on. I didn't finish the book and pay less attention to local growers than some, because I grow so much of my own, but as long as you have folks with disposable income about, some of this stuff will sell. As the climate warms, new areas should open up, like expanded potato production in Iceland.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If not for the federal regulations and taxes, there would be. I looked at doing something like that with some of my land, but there are now so many regulations with more and more coming that you would have to really be dedicated and pray not to run afoul of inspectors and taxmen. The other problem is labor. Intensively grown vegetables and fruit are labor intensive and today labor is expensive. You might be able to start up a small scale brewery since that would add value to your produce, but even there the feds slam you.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
How true. And then try to get a booth at a Farmer's Market. You need to know somwone... Who sent you?

The cities and counties and whatever zones are all over this activity too. Funny, how the further up the Government food chain you can reach, the less "problem" you will have. Real funny!

Treasury Sec's son opens Farmer's Market booth! Se hpe easy it can be? Buy my book...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
oh boy - see how.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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