Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of joining California Farm Water Coalition up in the Fresno area to tour several California farms and see how fruit and vegetables go from field to table. As a health-focused mom who grew up in a neighborhood of backyard cattle and porch-planter strawberries, it is fascinating to me to get a peek into the lives of the people we rely on every single day, and to learn how we can preserve the art of real food for generations to come.
“I want people to view agriculture as a natural resource that needs to be protected.” -Liz Hudson of Hudson Farms
One of our first stops was a small, unassuming stand along the expansive 180 acres of Hudson Farms. Liz welcomed us like family, and shared how her company grows fruit for local sale and for packing plants to freeze and redistribute. It was fascinating to hear which products are popular in the area (they sell a ton of peaches, plums and nectarines) as well as how they actually combat a problem of over-production on certain plants (nectarines and plums are hand-thinned to make sure each fruit has enough room to grow without scarring).
How is Fresno SO successful at agriculture?
To support their endeavors, many produce growers work with dedicated boards to promote recipes and increase interest in the subject (much like how companies hire PR representatives). Fresno is the #1 produce county in the nation because of good soils, good climate and a long history of family farms.
The California Water Crisis
But not all is coming up
roses err…peaches in the area. We soon left the bounty of Hudson Farms and trekked across town to a devastated area called Mendota. The agriculture-dependent community here started to collapse when surface water delivery became unreliable. Unemployment skyrocketed to 46% in 2009. The water allocation continues to be low and while farmers have come up with innovative ways to use water sparingly through buried pipes and drip irrigation, one of the richest soil regions in the world is tragically going to waste.
How is it possible for such contrasting situations to exist mere miles apart? The answer lies in California's extensive water history. California used to be rich in groundwater, but many overpumped aquifers have been overused and can't support the growing needs of cities and farms. This has forced a complex series of local water interests to battle it out for water access through a dam system that also sustains a local fish population. Add in some bizarrely powerful bass groups and tourism developers, and you're left with a horrifyingly political interest war surrounding our food source.
Finding Success in Fruit
In spite of the challenges, it was fascinating to learn how these farmers are finding innovative ways to thrive. When Joe Del Bosque set out to grow cotton on 2200 acres, he quickly learned that bumpy fields don't make for easy cotton-picking. He quickly switched to organic melons and scored a huge contract with Whole Foods to distribute his amazing, record-breaking fruit throughout the entire nation. But he's not sitting on his laurels atop a major corporation. He and his wife, daughter and sister work long hours seven days a week without a day off for three to four months at a time.
I have to say, the entire trip I hardly saw any water being used due to the rigid limitations in the area. Until we got to the Wawona processing plant. Here, the fruit is sanitized through an ozone process and packaged up for distribution to consumers, so cleanliness is king. Everything is thoroughly washed and inspected, held up to an impressively rigorous quality control process.
While the water flowed a little more freely here, the same community ideals applied as they do in the farms: family-owned Wawona has kept many of the same employees for over fifty years, maintaining a local fruit stand and doing what they can to help feed those in need. Take a walk around a particular Wawona family field and you'll find a bizarre sight: a carousel that the original Wawona founder once bought in the hopes of opening a community park. In the end, the pricey bureaucracy involved in gifting such a thing to proved too much of a burden, and the project was abandoned. The sight of this was so touching and sad to me, and so reflective of the damage that can be done by polarizing politics.
Education Comes Full Circle
Finally, we hit the market. Fresno State Farm Market features artisan foods from olive oil to salami that all ends up being sold at their own little market. At California State University, Fresno, students are trained in how to safely and humanely handle animals from birth to plate, and understand agriculture from food growth to packaging and pricing.
“They say whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting.” – Rod Cardella of Cardella Winery
Naturally, our blogger crew was excited to head out to a farm-turned-winery and experience how one family is finding new channels for income in the face of uncertainty. They've leveraged their land into a multi-faceted space for events and tours, with a possible bed and breakfast on the horizon.
I spoke in-depth with Rod and was inspired by his can-do attitude in the face of an uncertain political economy that can truly shift his family's entire way of being on a whim.
Do you have any questions about family farms and water? Leave them in the comments!