I didn’t blog all last week because we were on a family road trip to Southern California, so daytime was for driving and/or activities like hanging out with my mom or touring Legoland, and nighttime was for much-needed unscheduled time with the family, and sleep. It was great. The first day took us down Route 5 through the Central Valley, which contains about 1% of the country’s agricultural land but produces 8% of its agriculture. The politics of water, a major issue in California, is in your face, with various pleas to make water cheaper and reminders that cheap food depends on it. “Food grows where water flows,” the signs say. “Congress-created dust bowl”–they mean Democratic Congress-created, since the signs list the culprits as Pelosi, Boxer, and the local Congressman, Jim Costa. My primary impression whenever I pass through this land, however, is bewilderment that anything edible grows here at all. It’s practically a desert–not a dust bowl, but very dry land. Rerouting water here in the amounts needed to raise things like fruit trees, lettuce, and cattle is a major problem–as anyone in the Sacramento Delta can tell you. It seems that there just isn’t enough water to green this valley and still have salmon in the rivers and water in the pipes of cities with populations in the millions.
My first impression is not quite right, though. Actually, the desert, like the abundance of food growing in it, has largely been created by humans. The valley used to be a mix of grassland, woodlands, and marshland, with lots of rivers. We turned the grassland into fields, cut down the forests, drained the marshes, and diverted the rivers to irrigate the farms and provide water for 30 million people around Los Angeles, as well as the smaller but significant population centers of the Bay Area, Sacramento, and the lower Valley itself. Now we are trying to grow food in what has indeed become a desert.
On a related political issue, I hid from the heat in the air conditioning of the car, and whenever I had to emerge for gas and food, the heat of the air was like a hammer pounding me into the ground. I can’t imagine going out there day after day to plant or pick, unless I had no other options. Maybe Mexicans feel otherwise, being more accustomed to a hot climate, but there’s only so much adjusting a human body can do; farm workers die of the heat there every year. One thing’s for sure, it’s the kind of job that should be very generously compensated, if we compensate based on the value of the work done and the strength needed to accomplish it. Obviously we don’t. Another hidden cost of our cheap food.
We drove by fields (lettuce and strawberries), orchards (almonds was our guess), enormous feedlots where a lot of the country’s beef cattle live out the last one-third to one-quarter of their lives (beef-eating friends tell me the taste is about what you’d expect compared to grass-fed cattle, but obviously most consumers of beef are fine with it). The water policies of the past several decades have given rise to entire communities, a history and a home, a whole way of life for many thousands of people, that are now threatened by changes in policy; yet the old policies don’t seem to be sustainable. No wonder the people are angry. What is a fair approach to solving the dilemma we’ve created?