California of the Dark Ages

I recently took a few road trips longitudinally and latitudinally across California. The state bears little to no resemblance to what I was born into. In a word, it is now a medieval place of lords and peasants—and few in between. Or rather, as I gazed out on the California Aqueduct, the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Luis Reservoir, I realized we are like the hapless, squatter Greeks of the Dark Ages, who could not figure out who those mythical Mycenaean lords were that built huge projects still standing in their midst, long after Lord Ajax and King Odysseus disappeared into exaggeration and myth. Henry Huntington built the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project in the time it took our generation to go to three hearings on a proposed dam.

For all practical purposes, there are no more viable 40-acre to 150-acre family farms. You can sense their absence in a variety of subtle ways. Tractors are much bigger, because smaller plots are now combined into latifundia, and rows of trees and vines become longer. Rural houses are now homes to farm managers and renters, not farms families. One never sees families pruning or tying vines together as was common in the 1960s. I haven’t seen an owner of a farm on a tractor in over a decade.

Several developments have accelerated rapid change in the state. The long agricultural depression at the turn of the century—years of unprofitable prices for tree, vine and row crops—gave way about a decade ago to a sudden farm bonanza, especially in nut tree prices. The result was that once unprofitable land that had bankrupted the old agrarian class was absorbed by larger concerns and went through the costly process of transforming into pistachio, walnut, and almond acreages. Land prices in central California suddenly went from $5,000 an acre to $30,000 and up. Sometimes I’d like to remind the ghosts of those who went broke that the land they sold off for nothing is now quite something.

When I was in high school there was about 100,000 acres of almonds (selling at less than $1 a pound); now there are almost a million acres (at over $3 a pound). Production per acre tripled. Nuts unlike stone fruit are almost completely mechanized; so farm labor jobs are disappearing. The engine that drives illegal immigration is certainly no longer agriculture, but hotels, restaurants, construction, landscaping—and public assistance. The United Farm Workers is virtually defunct largely because there are ever fewer farmworkers. When it tries one of its ossified strikes, growers simply pull out any crops that require hand labor.

The drought accelerated these trends. Rural farmhouses that were rented out to the impoverished are often boarded up. In some places the water table dropped 50-100 feet and it apparently made no sense to drill new $40,000 domestic wells for $600 a month in rental income. Roman authors wrote of these transitions from an agrarian patchwork to an empty countryside of huge and, ironically or rather predictably, more efficient agribusiness.

Drip irrigation was said to be the new smart way of farming, given its economy in water usage. But was it in the long run? Under the ancient system of surface irrigation—refined in the 1970s and 1980s by the laser-leveling of fields—water quickly flowed to the end of the row and was shut off, often at night when transpiration was minimal.

Note the economy of the old system: there was little costly pumping from the aquifer. Sierra and Northern California water was gravity-fed into canals and on into orchard and vineyards. What water that was not absorbed by the crop replenished the water table, which stayed mostly constant, given the lack of pumping.

No so with the advent of drip irrigation (few farmers filter surface water to pump through their systems). Instead, pumping ground water through drip hoses became a 24/7 operation. What trickled out of the drip lines was either used by the plant or evaporated. Almost no drip water, as in the past with surface irrigation, was recycled back into the aquifer. I rarely see a man with a shovel walking the vineyards anymore. Expect more water crises in the future, given that pumping the aquifer is the new farming, in dry or wet years.

Illegal Immigration also Changed the Nature of California

The old measured migrations from Mexico did not tax the system. The American host was confident in helping the immigrant learn a new culture (or why else had he left his own in Mexico?), and so was not shy about assimilating and integrating newcomers. Not now.