News From the Farm | March 28, 2016

Much of the rich diversity and prosperity of California’s remarkable agricultural landscape came from the efforts of immigrants. Men and women settlers who came, occupied a landscape that was incredibly rich in an abundance of resources—cheap land, deep fertility of remarkable soils, abundant water, a sparsely settled landscape, along with oil, gold, fish, timber and rich grasslands. They undertook a vast harvest of timeless wealth with the energy of new converts to a religion of abundance. Hard work enabled so much harvest.

My father was one such immigrant, as were my mother’s parents, emigrating from Switzerland to California where opportunities seemed limitless. My father immigrated after the war and first worked in the Redwood forests of Northern California, felling what he called ‘beautiful giants’.  He and my mother went on to establish a successful dairy in part of “the Valley of the Hearts Delight” – the Santa Clara Valley – now Silicon Valley. The cows left as the silicon moved in… By 1968 most of the cows were gone and the fabric of the native landscape torn and forgotten. 

My parents joined other Swiss, Portuguese, Dutch and other European expatriates in rural communities up and down the state, becoming the milkers, cheeesemakers, farmers and grazers there. I grew up in a household surrounded by these Swiss entrepreneurs – energetic peoples in a land of opportunity driven by an ethic of hard work and imagination. They were part of an agriculture that helped to build our cities with the security of abundant food and cheap resources. We built a prosperous California on the patterns, expectations, and seemingly unrestrained access to this natural wealth. There was so much.

Also clear, was a green light to disregard any rights of indigenous peoples – that moral restraint is still being developed – along with the ability to manipulate a seemingly endless pool of importable cheap labor to harvest and tend the expanding fields. Many of the Mexican and Pacific Rim farm laborers became, in time, new farmers. California’s landscape was leveled, inland oak forests razed, lakes were drained and rivers straightened to meet the burgeoning demand for the fruits, grains, meat and vegetables that this rare climate made possible. The land became a magnet for the poor from all parts of the Americas and the world in a remarkable story of abundance harvested from a seemingly limitless natural wealth.

Any talk about a ‘sustainable’ harvest was lost in a struggle to be economic survivors in a world of abundance and low prices. Virtue and survival merged in a strategy to harvest more at a lower price. Research and economic theory merged to support more abundance and the tools for a faster taking. The consequences of new technologies weren’t often accounted for. 

For example, applying nitrogen as plant food, created powerful and measurable increases in crop yield, yet nitrogen has moved through the soil to make groundwater in some rural areas undrinkable. Pesticides worked to kill problem insects and yet often missed targets or spawned resistant insects that could adapt far more quickly than new products could be developed. Wells were drilled to tap the storehouse of water underground—but often with little restraint as to how much one could take. 

Farmers and researchers are addressing many of these issues. Yet the vestige of the immigrant experience is still being felt in the food production process. The very design of how we farm and which farms succeed may be rooted more in the philosophy of extraction and less in strategies for regeneration of the resources that are the foundation of a 1000-year perspective. Water, for example is often thought of as the water that is pumped and stored in our rivers or snowpack and less as the incredible reservoir of water in fog, dew, or moisture that falls on soil protected by living plants. Little is thought of evaporation moisture lost on unprotected soils-, or how we slow down the runoff from the rain that we do get and how to make soil more sponge-like for greater infiltration and slower release.

It is a different time than the era when my father immigrated to California in 1948. As population grows, the solutions to managing our resource base for multiple considerations become more necessary.  The investment in this broad and creative new design is a public investment, with farmers as the implementers. Rather than the sticks of new regulation, there needs to be greater social investment in the carrots – strategies to reward practices that achieve multiple goals at the same time. Sustainable production of affordable food needs to be part of a pattern that solves at the same time water use efficiency, carbon sequestration, soil building, healthy farm ecology and a vibrant human community. 

Old patterns are hard to break and patterns that produce as much food abundance as we have enjoyed are hard to criticize. But we need to understand the pattern of extraction upon which we have built much of our food system, and all begin to invest in new ideas that become a society-wide commitment to sustainability and regeneration of our basic resources and to the lives of those who labor to sustainably produce that abundance.

–Paul Muller