Work and Days

Politics and Fruit

Here He Goes Again

Bill (of “motor-voter” access fame) lost his temper again, berating a reporter who quizzed him about the very strange support of the Clinton machine for a suit seeking to restrict caucus access for Nevada workers on the strip. He once again turned beet red, got in the reporter’s face and let go—about what we’ve seen in the Chris Wallace interview and the various rebukes to Obama on the stump.

For a number of years, Bill had seemed to take great efforts to achieve post-presidential, bipartisan “stature” by teaming up with George Bush the elder for humanitarian causes, and tried to be above the political fray, hoping to tap into the Bushophobia, and erase the bad taste of Monica and the pardons. But insidiously he is eroding all those efforts by his nasty campaigning for Hillary, and his adolescent outbursts. By year’s end he will have achieved what Jimmy Carter did in his post-9/11 slide, from elder statesman to partisan hack.

Republican Fratricide

After reading most of the McCain animus on conservative blogs, I’m a little worried that some of it goes over the top. Specifically, I am confused about statements on NRO where I write, suggesting that stopping pork barrel spending won’t improve a single American life or that McCain’s surge support is exaggerated. Stopping the bridge to nowhere or the billions spent needlessly (I can cite 100 such needless expenditures in central California) most definitely will improve far more than just a single American life. And while it is true that many candidates supported the surge, and that McCain unnecessarily in serial fashion denigrates Rumsfeld, his support for the surge was the most visible, and had a key effect in reining in other so-called moderate Republicans who were going to bolt.

McCain’s past support for the flawed immigration bill, McCain-Feingold, and opposition to tax cuts, as well as temper flare-ups at those who questioned his conservative fides are legitimate concerns. But many believe that the two key issues right now are winning, in conservative fashion, the war in all its theaters, and controlling out-of-control spending. He seems in the forefront there. Moreover it seems odd to fault him for telling the truth–however politically unwise–that all the jobs in the automotive industry simply aren’t coming back as before (given the global stature of Toyota, Honda, etc.), much less to suggest that his Michigan concession speech being (by design) preempted by a victorious rival is somehow just desserts.

I think those who might prefer a McCain or Giuliani will be perfectly happy to vote for the ticket should a Romney or Thompson be the standard bearer. But from the recent rhetoric, it almost seems the inverse is not true. And if that is the case, then a President Clinton seems to me a sure thing–which of course may be the desire— in the fashion that 1964 purists thought their loss logically led to recovery in 1968 or 1976 had to transpire to get to the promised land of 1980. I would remind conservatives, however, that we are in a war, and that sitting out 2008 might mean allowing a candidate to win (pick any of the three Democrats) who has promised to withdraw all troops in 2009, regardless of the battlefield landscape (perhaps versus a McCain Presidency who surely won’t do that).

California Tree-Fruit

I receive a lot of questions concerning why California tree-fruit, such as plums, nectarines, and peaches, continues to be in depression, when row crops and things like almonds and fresh grapes are not. Speaking as someone who grew up with the tree-fruit industry (my grandfather began farming our place in trees in 1910), I think there are three reasons.

All fresh fruit that is not storable is not so easily exported, and so misses out somewhat on the new appetites of an increasingly affluent middle class in China, India, and Korea, who are beginning to put California almonds in their rice, or use more of our walnuts or processed fruits as condiments. Second, 10-15% of all fresh fruit in the United States in the summer months is now consumed in farmers’ markets, and bypasses the old packer, shipper, broker nexus (Thank God), which leads us to the third relevant point: the new varieties that came on the scene in the 1960s were disastrous: big, shiny, watery, hard, bouncy—and tasteless, they shipped as well as they tasted awful.

Oh, to Eat an Elberta Peach!

In the old days, farming tree-fruit was an art: one had 24 hours to pick a delicious and ripe Santa Rosa plum or an Elberta peach before it went bad. Pickers used gloves; we used small padded boxes; and the fruit was on the truck within the day—or else. I can remember 20-hour days of madness as we rushed with my grandfather into the orchards to spread boxes and get them out, and hear his lectures to the picker to be sure to wear gloves and not drop the fruit from the bucket.

The result was that a consumer ate a delicious, ripe (and sometime messy overripe) tree-fresh plum or peach. It was hard to farm a 30 acre block of one single variety, since the skills involved took years to master. A single bad decision about irrigation timing, or soil fertilizaton, or thinning, or picking time, or a suddenly hot or cool day could spoil tons of fruit. The corporations, family or not, hated the hassles, and much preferred to have large tracts of ‘pick and forget’ varieties that were off the tree half green in one or two (rather than four or five) pickings. Almost anyone could manage such an orchard, and many with almost no skills did.

So with the advent in the late 1960s of varieties like Red Beaut plums (that destroyed its rival (both were picked in late May) delicious, soft old Burmosa early plum), May Grand nectarine, or Red Top peaches, the shipper had a fruit that could be picked half green and still colored much better, had a window of a week to be picked, did not bruise, had a good shelf life, and thus attracted the shoppers’ eye—until they got home and tried to eat it.

After forty years, the consumer said “no mas” and simply assumed that California plums, nectarines, and peaches were de facto unripe, hard and taste badly, if not saturated with chemicals to make them ship and look like plastic fruit. True, some have gone back to the old varieties for local consumption, but the notion that a family farmer of 100-200 acres could grow blocks of five-acre varieties, and from May to September pick and pack each day at a profit is apparently over.

They are going broke or long gone. Instead we have micro-farmers, mostly organic who do their own labor on 10-acre suburban farms for farmers’ markets, with tasty old varieties, OR mega-corporations, who own 5,000-10,000 acres of tasteless hard fruit and through sheer economy of scale still survive, though are in deep trouble since they have a product few anymore like.

(Tree-fruit farming is far more risky than Vegas gambling, as I can attest. It is not unusual to net $50,000 one year on a five-acre plum orchard, and lose $20,000 annually on it for the next seven years–due to hail, rain during bloom, shortage of bees, poor set, market collapse, changing taste for varieties, tree or soil diseases, strikes, etc.)

In the end, one would be safer playing the stock market or going to the Casino.

I note in passing that to a degree the fresh grape industry was similar, but the new shiny hard varieties like Flame Seedless tasted almost as good at Thompson Seedless (itself making an unfortunate devolution from a small, golden color sweet grape to a pumped up, girdled, gibbed-up, and water soaked monstrous, thumb-sized tasteless berry.)

The end of the Santa Rosa Plum and the Elberta Peach is emblematic of our age.