News From the Farm | May 27, 2019

Peaches are on the way!  

Last week it seemed like the entire Capay Valley (including a lot of kids) turned out for a ribbon cutting at the new Esparto Park and Aquatic Center. Public officials from Sacramento and Woodland (the County seat) were actively mingling as well, marking this as a truly noteworthy moment in the life of this little rural town.

Entrance to the new pool in Esparto

When I moved to Full Belly Farm 30 years ago, one of my jobs was a weekly visit to Esparto, about 16 miles down-Valley to make a bank deposit at the only bank in town.  I was angry at the bank when they decided to close their branch because it wasn’t busy enough, thus doubling the length of the trip I had to make to do the banking for the farm.  Over the years the only hardware store and even the only gas station in town both closed. This was the gas station where the owner knew everyone in the Valley, and once, when I turned up walking, drove me back to my truck with several gallons of gas to get me on the road again.

Several months ago, an article appeared in the Valley Voice, our monthly newspaper, under the title, “A Story From Long Ago”.  It was written by a gentleman who grew up in Esparto and who was in the 6th grade in 1940 — an elder in other words. He described the Esparto that he grew up in, with a railroad, a train depot that connected with the rest of the country, 5 gas stations and a full time doctor and nurse.  There was a large lumber yard where you could buy anything to build a house, plus a Ford dealership where his “parents bought a new Mercury for $1,116.00 in 1940.”  Not one of those things exists today.

This story could continue along these familiar lines — familiar at least to anyone paying attention to rural communities across the U.S.  Only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas where small-town challenges abound: Hospitals closing and long trips to see the doctor; inadequate investments in education; drug problems; little public transport (yes, everyone relies on cars here); uneven broadband coverage so crucial to entrepreneurship; little affordable housing (it’s definitely scarce here in the Capay Valley); and failing downtowns, like the downtown that we saw years ago, or imagined that we saw in the small town of Esparto.

These trends across the country are exacerbated by changes in agriculture.  According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the continued consolidation of farming has taken more medium-sized family farms out of the game and concentrated wealth and power among fewer, larger operations.  Just 5% of agricultural operations are capturing 75% of all agricultural sales.  When this happens, the increased trickle-down-into-local-communities reality of small family businesses is lost.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, over half the new jobs created in most rural regions come from small, non-farm business ventures. Some of the bright spots they note, are opportunities for value added activities in agriculture and the increase in the number of beginning farmers by 5% over the 5-year Census period. Rural areas have a crucial role to play, disproportionate to their populations, providing multiple functions like food production, carbon sequestration, water processing, habitat provision and recreational values.  There are opportunities in rural areas to create and deliver energy through wind farms, biomass plants and other alternative fuels.

I think Esparto is on the upswing side of the arc, not declining at all. Several new restaurants, a bustling hardware store, and the El Toro Food Carniceria have brought Main Street alive. The new Park and Aquatic Center offers a baseball/softball field, a soccer/football field, a full basketball court, wading pool and eight-lane swimming pool.  After the speeches and ribbon cutting, as soon as the crowd got out of the way, slowly making its way in to tour the building, the basketballs were flying for the first time ever last week.

“Development economist Albert Hirschma liked to point out that people in underdeveloped economies have three choices: exit, loyalty, or voice.  By exit, he meant people who leave for opportunities elsewhere, in the case of rural migrants, often to cities.  By loyalty he meant those who accept conditions as they are, upholding the status quo in a faltering or exploitative economy.  By voice he meant those who stay and speak up and act for change.” (Quoted from an article by Cynthia M Duncan.)

The Park and Aquatic Center in Esparto were indisputably the result of an incredibly dedicated group that chose the third path: to Voice the needs of the Capay Valley.  This group came together in 2001, formally known as the Western Yolo Recreation Center Association, with a vision for a public swimming pool and recreational facility to serve the small communities around Esparto.  This group never let their vision dim, gaining footing with funding from multiple sources and community fundraisers.  It is wonderful to see how much they achieved for those who live here now and in the future!

—Judith Redmond

The pool was a little quiet on its first day open for business.  It was raining and overcast!