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When Land Is History


I spent much of my later youth in the now-aged and obsolete vineyards that should have been pulled given the damage from nematodes, age, and poor soils. The canes were so scrawny that we children could prune and tie them as well as the adults who worked the bushy verdant vines on the good soil. The pond and its overflow basin had shrunk to about 4 acres, but in good wet years were always an oasis of wildlife -- herons, hawks, turtles, coyotes, kit foxes, and weasels. We had an old boat and often fished for perch before the water dried up in August.

The ancient Thompson vineyards received a reprieve in the boom years of the late 1970s when even its paltry ton-and-a-half-acre production made money. My dad and us salvaged the century-old apricot shed and rebuilt it into a resin dehydrator that saved two crops in the early 1980s. (I came home at 26 with a PhD in classics from Stanford and immediately received a very different appreciation on mastering the art of Greek composition: my father met me in the driveway, with “So are you done up there?” I nodded, “I think so.” He: “Well, good, then, why not get up on that roof and put on some new shingles?” And that was that.


The parcel enjoyed a short-lived renaissance under my siblings’ and my own stewardship. In 1979, we put in ourselves a sophisticated (for that time at least) drip system that superseded surface irrigation, with its wasted water, washouts from gopher holes, and poor production. Suddenly the vines received as much water as laser-leveled flood vineyards. But that investment was short-lived: raisins crashed from $1400 a ton in 1982 to $440 in 1983 -- and the ancient vineyard was through.

We replanted -- but in a novel scheme. If the sand made soil temperatures rise, the smaller crop canopies allowed more sunlight and heat, and the result was that any crop planted there -- if it survived -- would produce smaller but far earlier crops than elsewhere. And so for 15 years, this ground became our farmers’ market salvation: tiny plots of Asian pears; quince; Calimyrna figs; Fuyu persimmons; Black Beaut plums; Santa Rosa plums; foothill pomegranates; guava; almost any variety that was tasty and could pass muster from savvy open-market shoppers. By 1984, each week we were selling the organic produce at markets in Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Carmel, Palo Alto, and San Francisco. The ancient ground that had endangered my family’s 135 operation in years past now for a brief time saved it.


In Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, I wrote about the impending end of the farm -- children growing up and moving away; too little land for too many cash-strapped owners; too much romance in lieu of hard-headed reality; too many liberal arts degrees and too few agribusiness BAs; and too many huge horizontally operated corporate farms that could produce, pack, ship and market produce more cheaply.

Still, this winter, I regretted not buying back the family parcel. But I now rent out my own 40 acres, and the idea of living alone on 80 acres in the Road Warrior zone, near sixty, seemed a bit much. But mostly by 2012 I did not have the $300,000 needed or the foreclosure sale -- and surely not the $200,000 or more to redevelop and to replant the ground in almonds or a canopied, machine-harvested vineyard.

I wish the new owner well -- a successful farmer and entrepreneur, and hard-working second-generation Punjabi American, who farms well over 500 acres. I think, given his expertise, capital, and contemporary high technology, that he will make the tiny 40 acres far more productive than did any in my own 140-year line -- and without the daily remembrances of those long gone, the burdens of hundreds of voices in your head still of those who once lived and walked that land over the last century and a half.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple Shutterstock.com images.)