One of the highlights of the year is the annual EcoFarm conference, a gathering of organic farmers held at Asilomar. Covid disrupted the last two years, but this year, an online gathering is taking place and the prestigious keynote address was given by one of my favorite authors–Mark Arax, best known as the author of The Dreamt Land, a brilliant book on California, ag and water. And it's very, very fun to read, with a cast of real life characters as entertaining as any book I've ever read. (No dry tome this.)
Not only has he got a helluva story by the tail, he's a helluva writer. He spoke this morning to the Ecofarm conference attendees on Zoom. That video will soon be posted to the Ecofarm YouTube channel. (Subscribe to the channel to get a notification when new videos post there). But I thought it would be good for a transcript of his talk to be posted online somewhere, and so here it is (posted with Ecofarm's permission).
"Water, Land, and Power in the Central Valley | Towards an Ecologically Sound and Just Agriculture"
I often get asked what possessed me to write to, dare I say seminal books about California agriculture. You know the stories of J. G. Boswell the biggest cotton farmer in the world, the story of Stewart Resnick, the biggest farmer in America, and then the small guys, John Kirkpatrick, who grows citrons with Orthodox rabbis from the East Coast along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. And stories of the Pandols and how the Pandol's farming was changed by Amigo Bob.
What's that all about? Where does that where does that stem from? I don't really know. it's kind of a mystery to myself, but I have a guess - my grandfather.
My grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. In fact, he hid in an attic in Istanbul and, in 1915-1916, after he outlasted three years of the genocide, he came down from that attic. He had gone up there with books of French literature and his goal, his dream was to study French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.
And when he came down from that hiding spot, he went to work at an Armenian bookstore, one of the last surviving bookstores that an Armenian owned in Istanbul, and he met some people who were going to actually pay his way to the Sorbonne. This was around 1919.
So as he was getting prepared for this journey, these letters came from Fresno, California, from his uncle, who was a survivor of the Armenian genocide–lost his entire family, his wife, his children–and didn't know where to go, and landed in the San Joaquin Valley, and was writing these letters to my grandfather.
"You must come here, this is a new Armenia," [he wrote] and he started singing the virtues, the myths of California. He told my grandfather that the grapes hang here, “like massive jade eggs and the watermelons are so large, that when you scoop out the meat, you can actually ride down the rivers and the irrigation canals in what was left of the rind.”
So my grandfather had this choice in 1920. He was 18, 19 years old, and it was either Paris, France or Fresno, California. He chose the latter.
And so he landed here and went right to work in the fields on his hands and knees, picking the crops, the valley.
Back then it was possible, with three or four years of labor–especially after his mother and brother and sister joined him, together as a workforce–they were able to stack enough coin to buy 20 acres of vineyard on the west side of Fresno. And that's where my father was born.
By the time I came along, 40 years later, we had sold our last farm, along the San Joaquin River, and I grew up in suburbia.
My only real exposure to farmland was my grandfather's backyard. He had this 25 by 25 foot plot that yielded an extraordinary amount of vegetables and fruits. He used only two things–sulfur and compost and a little manure. He just worked that ground. And out came this miracle.
I don't think this is the imagination of a young boy, but I remember one year among the tomatoes, the eggplants, the Armenian peppers, the Armenian cucumbers, the melons and everything else, he planted okra. And this okra grew–first it grew taller than me, then it grew taller than him, and then it grew taller than everyone in our family, past the roof up into the sky. It was like watching a real life Jack in the beanstalk.
He had great pride in this. And then he would take me to the homes of this kind of army of Armenian backyard farmers in Fresno, who couldn't quite make it on the real farm…maybe couldn't afford it. Maybe the depression years took their farms, but they were doing something in their backyard that was remarkable. And I remember they were very competitive, about the size of their tomatoes and peppers, and everything else.
I remember my grandfather taking me to a man who was legendary among backyard farmers. His name was Donabed. And I remember walking in Donabed's house and he pulled my ear. I mean, he pulled it hard. And then he took a 50 cent piece and handed it to me as a kind of gift for enduring the pulling.
And then we went into his backyard, and I couldn't believe it. It was twice the garden of my grandfather's.
Back in the day, my grandfather and grandmother were getting magazines published by Rodale–Prevention Magazine and Organic Farming and Gardening. I remember in the early 60s seeing these magazines. My grandfather was very committed to that way of of growing stuff. Donabed, I assumed, was committed in the same way. But I couldn't believe how prolific his garden was.
So we got the tour of his garden. And we went back in, had a glass of tea, and then we left. And then my grandfather–I sat next to him in the car, and he was just shaking his head. And he said, "That damn Donabed. He's a cheater."
And I said, "What do you mean he's a cheater?"
And he said, "Miracle Gro."
I said, "What's Miracle Gro?"
And he goes, "Miracle Gro."
So apparently Donabed was taking shortcuts to get his garden. And this was my introduction to farming.
Fast forward, years later, and I'm a journalist with the Los Angeles Times. And I happen to have come back home to cover the middle of California–almost as a foreign correspondent.
A flood hits in 1996.
I get a call from a colleague in our Sacramento bureau, and he said, "Mark, Tulare Lake has come back to life."
I said, "Tulare Lake. What's Tulare Lake?"
He said, "Pull out your map."
So I pulled out the map and he said, "Trace Highway 43 out past Hanaford to the town of Corcoran."
And I did that. And there was, on the map, this lake.
And it was painted blue–as lakes should be painted. The damned thing–it was in the shape of a perfect square, almost. A square lake. A couple days later, I got in the car and I drove out that highway and I passed Hanford, and as I came up to Corcoran, I went along the road and at the end of the road, it kind of ended. It just stopped. And there before me was this huge levee, this big dike–something that you might see in the Mississippi Delta, the Florida Everglades, or Holland. And I stopped the car, parked it and started walking up this levee.
As I got to the top, the air had changed. The smell of the air had changed. And I looked out and what was cotton fields had become this inland sea. There were...the wind was whipping whitecaps past these telephone poles. And the speed with which nature had found itself–after just five six days into a flood–was astounding. I mean, birds were stabbing at fish. It looked like the New Jersey shore or something like that.
If you look close to the telephone poles, you could see these marks, and I didn't know that at the time, but I later learned that these marks were the high water marks of previous floods. And so the story of Tulare Lake was that man had drained this lake dry–first by the diversions of ditches and canals–and then later by dams and siphons and huge pumps that actually made the four rivers that fed into the lake run backward.
The Kings River, one of the mighty rivers of California, the powerful pumps of the Boswell cotton company, that actually stopped that flow, and make it run backwards.
So, as I was driving back to Fresno, I thought, "What is the story of this lake? What is the history of this lake? Why did I grow up dumb to this lake?"
There were irrigation canals that latticed Fresno when I was growing up. One went by my grandfather and grandmother's house. It was just three doors down. My grandmother said never go near that ditch. If you go near that ditch, you will lose your balance and fall in and no one will fish you out. And that was actually true because every summer the children of the Mexican migrants in the 105, 110 degree heat would swim in those irrigation canals. And sometimes they would drown.
I never thought, I never wondered why these canals were completely unfenced and accessible. Or what they were doing there in the first place?
Where was that water coming from? Where was it going to? Who was getting the spoils of that water? And by what right? These were questions I never asked myself as a kid but as I went out to Tulare Lake and came back, I started thinking about the valley in a different way. So I decided to delve into the history of Tulare Lake and to write a book about it.
About a year into the book, when I knew that it was going to be an epic story, I had a friend named Rick Watzmann, who was working for The Wall Street Journal. He was visiting me in Fresno and he asked how that book is going.
And I said, "it's going to be slow. It's going to be a 10 year project."
And he said, "Do you need some help?"
He was covering the Clinton administration. And he was in Washington, and part of this story of the draining of this lake took place in Washington, when the decision was made to dam the lake, to have the Army Corps dam the lake. The justification was that the lake was a flood zone.
So that began this journey. Rick joined me and we ended up finishing the book in five years.
My job was to really delve into the valley to tell the story of that lake. That lake begins in indigenous times.
There were four distinct tribes of Yokut Indians who lived along its shores in the tules, the bull rushes. They made their rafts of tules. They would fish...The women would wade into the lake–it was a shallow lake.
Remember, this is four rivers–the Kings, the Kaweah, the Tule and the Kern River. In flood years, they drain into that depression in the earth. They do not go out to the ocean.
The lake is shallow, and it ebbs and flows, given California's inherent weather, from flood to drought. It was so shallow the women would wait in, and fish clams and mussels with their toes. This was 500 to 1,000 years of history that was erased first by the Spanish missions, then by the 25 year seizure of California, the takeover of California by Mexico. And then finally by the taking that happened in 1846, by the United States.
So when you trace the history of Tulare Lake, you really trace the history of California, the capture of water, the defiance of nature and the rising of agriculture.The King of California] told that story–of the Southern Confederates who came here in the wake of the Civil War, who started diverting from those four rivers. In 1920, the Boswells and the Salyers, and other people from the south, were chased out of the South by the boll weevil. These were slave owning families, plantation owners.
They ended up coming west to Tulare Lake and then buying that floodwater and draining the rest of it by buying up rights in the canal companies and siphoning the water out of the rivers, out of a lake and eventually building a dam. This is the story of how the plantation South came to the middle of California.
It explained to me why growing up this place felt like South–the politics, the people, the racism. It was built right into our real estate codes. It just didn't affect [inaudible] as they call them, or Mexicans. Along with those they wouldn't let in–we Armenians live in certain parts of Fresno. So my people were colorized, racialized. They called us “black Turks,” which is probably one of the worst things you can call the Armenians who had just survived a genocide at the hands of the Turks.
And so that explained that kind of question. That mystery of me growing up in Fresno a little bit, why we lived in a certain part of town.
Let's take a little break and let's cut into that for a second and go take a look at my notes and we'll pick it up.
The King of California is a book that helped me explain California before we arrived, before I was born–the whole cotton culture, the plantation culture coming west.
I thought that once I'd written that book, I was going to go back to my other books and I didn't want to write about water or agriculture again.
And I didn't. My other books weren't about water agriculture. But then the drought came–the worst drought in recorded California history.
And a lot of the journalists who were kind of parachuting in from the east coast of the places just didn't seem to be getting the history right. So I thought, okay, it's time to tell this story from a drought perspective.The Dreamt Land, and that was a five year journey that extended beyond where I kind of dug in–my first book was about my father's unsolved murder. Basically, the story of our journey out of genocide, and the story of Fresno, and its corruptions and everything else.
The next book was the King of California, so I went 50 miles south, and extended beyond my own backyard.
And then I did a third book called West of the West, a bunch of essays about California.
The Dreamt Land was going to be a journey following water throughout the state. I was going to focus again on what I call the most intensive agricultural experiment in the history of man. That is the agriculture that we did in the San Joaquin Valley. And how drought shined a certain light on it, and what was going on in drought.
So I put my boots on, started driving down Highway 99 and finding farmers and others to talk to. Something very odd was going on.
Here we were in the midst of this record drought–fast forward–this past decade has been the driest decade in recorded history.
We basically had eight to nine years of drought interrupted by a flood–maybe one year average in between.
So you would expect in that time of water scarcity that the footprint of agriculture would probably be reduced. At worst it would stay the same, but it should get reduced, because the water was so dramatically reduced–the snow melt.
Instead, something quite surprising was happening.
In that driest period in California's recorded history, the farmers of the San Joaquin valley added 660,000 more acres of permanent crops–almonds principally, pistachios and mandarins.
And as this drought was happening, they were pulling off record crops.
So it was with that mystery in mind that I went into vineyards and fields in the middle of California to figure out what was going on.
You know the story by now. There was some water that was being taken from one area, that had better groundwater, and was shipped via pipes to an area that was dry. Those pipes extended two to three counties. The farmers are going deep into the earth. I mean, the Boswell company was building wells that were going 2,500 feet into the ground–so much so that the levees that I was standing on a decade earlier were sinking.
The aqueduct itself–that 444 mile concrete river that we built to move the rain from where it fell to where it didn't–that was sinking, too, because so much water was being extracted out of the ground that the clay was collapsing on itself and drawing the earth downward. It was almost as if... I mean imagine termites eating at the structure of your house. It's not something –that kind of ravage is not something you hear. It's not even something you see. It's almost imperceptible. It's so small–and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
So this is what was happening. We were extracting at a level that we had never extracted before. So that question took me backward, as it always does, because history answers those questions.
So where did the ethos of extraction begin?
Well, my editor thought–he's an East Coast person–he thought logically that it's the Gold Rush. But no, actually the first taking of California was the taking of the body of the indigenous.
It was that taking that allowed the Spanish missions to tap into the first flows of river, to build the first canals, and ditches, and the first crude dams. And this gave rise to a profusion of the first vineyards and orchards in California. That experiment was all because they had captured the body of the Indian, which allowed them to turn that into a workforce, which then captured the flow of the rivers.
We have a California conceived in genocide.
Then you move to the Gold Rush, and you see that same ethos playing out. This time you're capturing water–its force–to now unearth riches gold. And that whole extraction was basically to the benefit of a handful of industrialists who came here from afar. California gets shot out of a cannon. We don't need Manifest Destiny to make California. We have the Gold Rush and it does it almost overnight–80,000 people arrive and they're from all over the world. It's probably the most diverse origins of any state in America.
So that experiment goes on for 20, 25 years and then what happens is it culminates in the destruction of mountainsides, that are washed down–all that debris is washed down the rivers. And the silt, the mud then cover the early experiments of agriculture.
Those experiments reveal plains that were the richest soils.
So in the 1880s, California has a choice. Do we continue mining gold or do we mine the soil? The California Supreme Court ruled that one industry cannot destroy another industry. And basically the gold mines were for all intents and purposes shut down. And this gave rise in the 1880s to agriculture on an epic scale.
It began with the wheat farms, the wheat growers. In fact, the wheat king back then was a man named Isaac Friedlaender. A giant of a man–six foot seven–more than 300 pounds. They said his stride was the stride of two men if not three.
He had made his money selling flour to the gold mines. And now he decided that he was going to basically corner the market on wheat–growing it, harvesting it and sending it to Europe via clippers.
And so began these millions of acres in the middle of California turned into wheat, a monoculture and, as all of you well know, a monoculture has an Achilles heel, and that is what it robs from the soil. And wheat robbed so much, that as fast as that whole thing rose, it kind of withered. The yields came way, way down. Friedlander, Chapman and some of these other industrialists decided that it was time now to break up their vast holdings of land and sell it to smaller farmers.
So from the 1890s to the 1930s, we have a lot of small farmers coming here. This is where my grandfather arrives–1920. And we see this rise of a diversified kind of agriculture, on a scale that the world's never seen.
My grandfather arrived in a very important year–1920 was the year that the turbine pump was put out into the agricultural fields.
And this allowed farming now to move from the alluvial plain, the reach of canals and ditches, to somewhere beyond that. And the ground was not as primo as the alluvial ground.
So we see a huge expansion in the 20s, 30s, and 40s of agriculture. The footprint going out from primo ground to marginal ground.
To pump it, the aquifer gets lowered so much that the pump can't reach it. It's too expensive. The costs are too high. Farms start to wither and a cry comes up from the valley in the 1930s.
Basically, we have to steal ourselves a river. To grow agriculture more, we need to import water.
Now this would have sounded like a very fanciful idea except that, a decade and a half before, the city of Los Angeles had done just that. They had run out of their puny river–the Los Angeles River. They went up and over the mountain 230 miles to Owens, and they stole themselves a river.
So the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley decided that they would lobby their politicians in Sacramento to try to do the same. And this is what gives rise to the Central Valley Project–that drought of the 1920s and 30s.
So agriculture takes floodwaters from the Sacramento River and brings it north to south. And then the farmers of Kern County and Tulare, they take the flow of the San Joaquin River which runs through Madera and Fresno. They dam that and send that water to a place that it never went–130 miles south to Tulare, and eventually Bakersfield.
So we see this incredible shifting of water. Twenty years later, more floods come and this gives rise to the State Water Project, which ends up taking more flows out of the north and the Delta and moving those flows to the west side of Kern County, where farmers want to grow more–and then up and over the mountains to the faucets and swimming pools of Los Angeles.
And these two systems, the CVP and the SWP become what I call the [inaudible] system–the grandest water moving experiment in the history of man.
So what we see is those two projects didn't satisfy the farmers who were growing then. They actually whet the appetite of farmers to come, for farmers to expand even more.
And so the footprint of agriculture starts creeping outward ever more.
And then comes not the turbine pump but something along those lines. It's drip irrigation. And drip irrigation is sold as a water saving device. In actuality it's a yield enhancing device, as you well know.
And in the aggregate, there is kind of a paradox of drip irrigation. In the aggregate, we use more water because drip now allows farmers to grow crops on ground that should never be farmed. If you came here, I could drive you to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of acres that shouldn't be farmed, but are because of the miracle of drip.
You know that little line delivering a precise dose of water and chemical so that the tree you're growing could almost be growing hydroponically. Really the dirt is there just to hold it up.
And then we see uphill expansion of orchards. Furrow irrigation could never go there. So now we have a situation where the system we built–which was a miracle system, in its defiance of gravity–what it brought to California–we now come up against a limit line.
When the system was conceived, there were 10-13 million Californians. There are 40 million now.
On top of that limit line and the inherent swings that we have from drought to flood which give that system problems...That system is not able to deliver the water that it should because of extended droughts.
Now we have climate change, hitching on to drought, and we are seeing a kind of havoc we've never seen before–more extended droughts, hotter summers, January's that feel like March's, a lack of chilling hours that trees need to go into a deep hibernation, the use of chemicals to put them into hibernation. The [inaudible] of the cherry trees, the cherry orchards of Kern County. This is what we're seeing now.
And so in the book, we're go through and explore all these farmers and what they've done, what their families before them have done, what they're doing to try to transform the ground and respond to these changes.
A question is rising up as well. And that question is: how much longer can we go on like this?
I like to say there's an awareness that we need to change. And we've seen that in the state of California, we think of our state as a progressive place. But it was one of the last states to regulate groundwater.
And when they did through SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, they put such a lead time in–25 years–that basically what it did is it just gave the farmers who wanted to grow more–the new farmers and when I say new farmers I'm talking about hedge funds–the Canadian Royal Mounties pension funds, retirement funds, the Mormon church–it gave them incentive now to dig more wells, go deeper into the ground before SGMA takes effect.
So now we see a kind of nth degree of extraction that is destroying these aquifers.
And I saw what happened this summer in Madera. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly about a well fixer who wanted to warn all his community that the aquifer was collapsing.
We're going into another summer of the same thing. We're gonna see what that brings.
I like to think that the book, and I hope this talk, maybe ends on a positive note. And that is that kind of goes back to my grandfather and Rodale's organic farming and gardening. It's never been more important for us to embrace the ideals, the precepts of the kind of farming you [organic] folks do.
You're our way out of this. Yes, I know organic farming has changed. It's not those folks, the early ones who came out of U.C. Santa Cruz, the hippies who went into their five and 10 acres and 20 acres and 30 acres. Yes, industrial agriculture has discovered organic farming. The Organic Farmer of the Year this year or last year had something like 25 or 30,000 acres. But let's put that aside.
The soil–what you're doing to the soil. I've gone and visited with my friend Tom Willey. And some of the innovators of California organic farming–Phil Foster being one of them. I see what's going on. I think there's something to the capture of carbon. Those men who are trying to do it will admit to you that it may be hype. They don't know the reality but there's something there. But all the things you are doing are the things we need to go back to.
Maybe not the combination of sulfur and cow manure that my grandfather was using back there, but the sophistication of what you're doing, the science of what you're doing is a way for us to reduce the footprint of agriculture.
In the San Joaquin Valley alone–and the farmers will concede this and the irrigation district managers will concede this–we are farming 6 million acres basically. We're going to have to go down to 4.5 million acres to achieve something that's sustainable, where the groundwater is being recharged as much as it's being extracted to do that.
Because, listen, the last thing you want to see is the San Joaquin Valley or the Central Valley turned into another San Fernando Valley that is filled with endless summers.
This ground, these rivers, the sun–this was meant for agriculture, but we've got to find our way back to a better agriculture.
And that's where you all come in–leading the way and in a sense, in a perverse way.
I think climate change has opened up an opportunity. We don't have the wiggle room we used to. We're up against the line, and some force is coming from the other side.
And I think it will allow us to make arguments that have a kind of force that they didn't have before.
Let me give you a quick example. And then I'll end this. I'm moving now beyond the farm to suburbia because that sprawl model of farming, became the sprawl model of our suburban growth.
About four months after the Paradise fire, the deadliest fire in California history, I drove up there. I'd never been to Paradise and as I was taking the road from Chico, that beautiful farmland outside Chico, which by the way has been preserved by green line that did not allow that city to grow into those orchards–one of the first urban growth boundaries to protect agriculture, if not the first in California.
So as I'm driving from Chico, up this Skyway and it's literally a road that is taking you into the sky. And you're driving up to Paradise. And you see on one side of you, a river canyon and on the other side of you a river canyon, and it occurs to you that you are driving up the ledge of a geological chimney.
And then you arrive there and you see all the destruction, and it occurs to you that a county planted 40,000 people in the direct path of wildfire, that the state allowed this to happen, and that today 10 million of the 40 million Californians live in the path of wildfire in the wildland urban interface. And how even as we're having these record wildfires, and the smoke is pouring down and literally, it sits in my valley for three months. I've got HEPA filters blowing all the time here, hardly make it outside in those months. As all that's happening, we are continuing to build more houses in suburbia, spending more money expanding freeways, widening them, making new ones into the woodlands of California. This is all wrong. And we can't quite embrace the other way yet. But we're getting there. Will we get there fast enough?
So I don't know if that's a hopeful note, but that's how I'd like to end it–that in the midst of all of this, I think it allows us to get creative and to do things that maybe folks didn't have the guts to do before, that they didn't have the spine to do before. Politicians wouldn't dare utter these things. But now we might.
So anyway, I'm looking forward to going out and visiting some of you on some of the great organic farms of California, seeing what you're doing, and writing about it…I cherish this opportunity to have talked to you. Thank you very much.