Unintended Consequences

It was Cesar Chavez’ birthday, a holiday for some, and I was having lunch with a 92-year old Japanese bachelor farmer. He’s kind of a lonely fellow. His brother hated farming and moved to a job in Minneapolis when they were young. Like him, his sister never married, and lived with him for a while before moving on to her own life. She has since passed away. He has two nephews neither of which are interested in farming. So he farms his 60 acres of almonds near Sanger, California and talks to his German shepherd when no one else is around.

My father grew up near his ranch in the 1940’s in a farm worker’s camp nearby and attended elementary school on his street. My friend remembered the camp my dad had lived in. As we talked it struck me that the Okies, my grandparents, had provided labor for the farms before their children had moved to other professions like the construction trades. My dad’s generation had then raised their kids to go to school and do better. Today I could see the same progression with the Mexican farm workers and their children.

I explained this to my friend and he told me something I had never heard before. He said that before the Okies came to California it was the Japanese who provided farm labor. His father had lived in that same camp my grandparents had lived in and, like my dad, he had attended the school about ten years earlier. He knew the family that had built the camp to house labor for their nearly 600 acres. His father had come from Japan in the 1910s, leaving his wife and family behind and sending money home much like the Mexicans do today. At that time, the camp was all Japanese men. Eventually these men saved enough to buy some land and bring their families to join them. I knew that there were many Japanese farmers dotting the landscape around Fresno, but I didn’t know they started as laborers.

He remembered a story his father had told him from the prohibition era (my grandparents were still in Oklahoma then). One Saturday night a young man from the camp got drunk and crashed his car into a downtown Fresno storefront. The men in the camp heard about it and, fearing that the drunk driver would be traced back to their camp followed by a visit from the revenue agent, they formed a party to carry an illegal barrel of wine out to a field and bury it. They were very careful to leave no traces. A  few days later, after they figured the coast was clear, they went to reclaim their barrel and couldn’t find it. They had buried it at night and had no landmarks to work from. His dad told him that if ever he was discing that field and felt a bump he should go digging. There would be a good barrel of wine to be found.

Central Valley farms have always depended on farm labor. And the Japanese and Okies were able to scrape by and eventually make a better future for their children. “Hard work” and “labor” were words that equaled opportunity in their minds. It might be hard, and exhausting, but they could do it. And, if they managed their earnings with discipline and purpose, it not only fed their families but built a future for them.

When Cesar Chavez began to organize farm labor the interaction between land owners and those who did the work changed. The spirit of shared opportunity in food production was replaced with a spirit of who could win versus who could lose.

I’ve heard it said that when we resort to making demands we often get more. But the more that we get comes to us in “little bitty pieces.” It’s better for all involved when we understand that we gain most by offering service. The person who is most generous with that service is the person whose bank balance grows the fastest.

Farmers who saw the success of Cesar Chavez’ demands prevailing responded by adopting mechanized ways to farm. The first of these was the Blackwelder tomato harvester. It took some time to develop, but once perfected hundreds of acres of canning tomatoes that formerly would have required two or three hundred field workers could be harvested with a crew of about 15 or 20.

Almond farmers developed equipment to shake nuts to the ground and sweep them up with machines rather than manually knocking the trees with mallets onto tarps and gathering them by hand to dump into bins. A crew of three was soon able to do the work of about fifty.

Other labor saving technologies like selective herbicides to eliminate the need for hand weeding came with the mechanical advancements.

The advances in technology created the ability for individual farmers to operate on more acres. A farmer who could cover 40 acres of land with a crew could now do five times that much with equipment. Chavez’ intentional disruption of the farm labor supply ultimately resulted in less demand for those he represented, but it also led to fewer farmers needed to continue to feed the world.

When I was a freshman in college in autumn of 1974 (about the time Cesar Chavez was really hitting his stride) there was a conference at UC Davis of “eight distinguished UC scientists” who predicted that by 1985 the world’s population would overwhelm our capacity to produce food. A terrible world-wide famine would result- even to the point of impacting the United States. As usual, the news was intentionally alarmist. Personally, I saw it as opportunity, and switched from studying medicine to studying food production. I reasoned that if a food shortage was imminent then those who could provide solutions would be most appreciated.

What I missed was exactly what the “experts” missed. We didn’t factor in the idea that as problems crop up many people are inspired to find solutions. Since 1974 when that grim forecast was made, and Cesar Chavez threatened to disrupt the supply of farm labor, farming systems were developed that opened the door to large-scale, ultra-efficient farming with a small labor requirement. And their production per acre went up as their labor requirement fell.

Cesar Chavez definitely got more for the farm workers. He got lettuce growers to provide long handled hoes so workers wouldn’t have to bend over all day as they weeded. When this change was made many workers actually grabbed the long-handled hoes by the neck and bent over to weed the fields anyway. He got Delano table-grape pickers a raise of about 60%. And he got farm workers the right to band together to demand more whenever they felt the need.

But the legacy we rarely see in his biographies was the huge impact he had on the mechanization of food production in California, and the resulting huge increases in productivity. His efforts ultimately resulted in people he was trying to help losing their jobs to machinery. Meanwhile food production from California skyrocketed and the imminent disaster of worldwide famine was averted. While others praise his accomplishments for farm workers (which ultimately was a failure) and his non-violent protests (I know many farm managers who were shot at or threatened with violence by Chavez’ followers) his real accomplishment was to curtail world hunger. For that I guess we should honor him by celebrating his birthday, even if it was by accident.


Old Boyfriends

My wife was watching a video of a choral group when she said, “This guy looks just like my old boyfriend. He has the same mannerisms and everything.” I had to look.

He was a handsome fellow, wearing a blue blazer, tan slacks, and a vibrant tie. He had clear, unblemished skin, a sharp nose and squared chin. He oozed confidence and courage. Essentially, he was a young Tom Cruise singing in a church.

I had to wonder how she chose me instead of this guy.* Thirty-some years ago when we met I was clean but not clean-cut. My hair never stayed in place. It was fuzzy. Definitely not sharp. I had freckles and squinty little eyes. And I rarely wore a suit. Jeans and a t-shirt were my style. As for physique, I have never had a washboard stomach. I wasn’t fat, but I wasn’t trim either.

Once, after we were married, I met this old boyfriend in person and had the same thought. He was definitely more handsome and seemed to be more ambitious. Why did she go with me?

So I asked her, “How is it that you wound up with me and not him?” She wouldn’t say.

So I suggested, “Maybe it’s because I never stole someone’s dog to collect the reward money?”

She had told me about this guy before. He had done some crazy things in his quest for wealth. One day when she went over to his place there was an Afghan Hound in the back yard. She was excited thinking he had bought a dog. But he explained that he planned to make good money by driving around the better neighborhoods looking for stray dogs, especially those of high breeding, lure them into his car and bring them home for a while. He hoped that when he called the number on their collar the owners would be so happy to get their dog back they would pay him a reward. When he returned this dog, the owners were grateful, but they offered him nothing. A sincere thank you was all he got.

My wife laughed. “I had forgotten he did that.”

So I still don’t know how I made the cut when Mr. Tom Cruise didn’t.

I’m thinking that the best women in the world might be interested in good character and integrity over good looks. But then, I’ve done some pretty dumb things myself. Maybe someday I will figure it out. For now, it’s a mystery. What matters is that I know that I got one of the best, however it happened. I’m just grateful, and probably better off not asking questions.

By the way, her old boyfriend built a career as an insurance adjuster.



*We celebrated our thirty-first anniversary last week.

Eating Mummies

Today, six months after harvest and after a very rainy winter, I ate a handful of almonds fresh off the tree. They were crisp, clean and very satisfying.

After every harvest there are a number of almonds that have stuck to the tree. Over the winter their hull and shell turns black with mold. Farmers call them mummies, which is not the most appetizing image; but because the shell protects the actual nut from the

Mummies and almonds

Mummies and their product

elements they can be cracked open to give a perfectly clean, edible, healthy food. I have been eating them this way for over twenty five years.

I got the inspiration to try this in the days I was still reading dreamers like Henry Thoreau. He wrote that in Spring he liked to eat apples that were left on the tree through the cold Massachusetts winter. He claimed that they were slightly fermented giving them a richer flavor than when they were freshly harvested, even if they were slightly liquified. I tested this theory on grapes that had raisined on the vine in my native California. It was true.  He was onto something. There are some good flavors and terrific sensations out there.

I’ve found that almonds on the tree are just as fresh in March as they were the previous September. There is no mold, no liquefaction. Occasionally I find a worm but I just throw those nuts away. I don’t worry about pesticide residues. I reason that if the nut is so well protected that even six months of rotting molds can’t get to it, pesticides don’t have a chance. And, as far as I know, my daughter doesn’t have any birth defects beyond the disadvantage of being my daughter. (She will tell you, that’s enough to deal with.)

I understand that food safety is a hot topic these days. I suppose if a Ph.D. candidate needed a thesis for a degree he could probably find trace amounts of a deleterious compound in my rained-on raw almonds. Then Mother Jones would have one more thing to attack, and real mothers would have another thing to fear.

I’m happy, though, to continue to experiment and learn about the good stuff. Someone probably said a life lived in fear is not a life lived. And Nietzshe said something like “if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.” I’ll just keep on trying new gleanings, and, with a little luck, I might even outlive Euell Gibbons.

Good Weeds

My church bought an eighty acre Thompson Seedless vineyard to produce raisins for welfare and disaster relief throughout the world. It’s surprising how many lives can be changed, and in some cases even saved, by such a small piece of ground.

As members we are regularly asked to work in the vineyard. Every year we do the harvest–hard, dirty work in the peak of the summer heat. In winter we prune and tie the vines. And we replace broken posts and repair the trellises. Most of us have no farming background. Most of us don’t even know the basics of how grapevines grow and produce. A farm manager trains us and our children, and we go to work. For charity.

A few weeks ago as we raked weeds off of the vine rows a ten-year old noticed young weeds sprouting between the vine rows in neat rows about four inches apart from each other. It didn’t make sense to her that we were pulling weeds from the vine rows and leaving the weeds between the rows. She was even more surprised when I told her those weeds had been planted there.

They were actually a mix of peas and clovers–all legumes. Legumes are plants that grab nitrogen from the air (71% of the air we breathe is pure nitrogen) and store it in their roots. Eventually, when the plants die, they release this nitrogen into the soil in a form that acts as a sort of slow release fertilizer. This way the farmer doesn’t have to use as much chemical fertilizer to grow the food. He spends less money on fertilizer and still gets good crop yields.

Most food producers do something like this to grow their crops. Some have even discovered that the water they irrigate with has nitrogen in it, and they reduce the amount of fertilizer they use accordingly. Growing food requires water and nitrogen. There’s no getting around it. The trick is to waste as little as possible making sure the plants or animals get it instead of the ground below them.

When I hear people accuse those who grow our food of contaminating groundwater with excess nitrates I have to wonder. Most farmers I know don’t want any of it getting past their crops. They pay for it and want to be able to sell it back to us in the form of food (your leafy greens are chock full of the stuff).

There are more credible sources of groundwater contamination, but I don’t think we really want to address them. The first to come to mind is my neighbor who insists on having the greenest lawn in the neighborhood and fertilizes it to the max. The result is his gardener gets to mow like crazy and haul it off to the landfill every week. Real smart. And you know those world-class gardeners we hear about on the radio? You don’t get maximum results without reaching the saturation point and beyond.

Maybe the difference here is that farmers grow things to make a profit and a living for themselves. We city-dwellers grow things to satisfy our egos. This might be one case where the profit motive actually is better for the environment. It definitely reduces waste. When it comes to groundwater contamination I believe we are all proof of that saying, “When you point your finger at someone there are still three fingers pointing back at yourself.”

Climb to Kaiser

Cycling is a game of chess with the rider playing against his own body. The rider alternately pushes and then relents, hoping to finish the ride as quickly as he can. If he miscalculates or misreads his body’s feedback, he bonks* before finishing. Effectively, checkmate is the body saying, “This time I win. You’re not going any further.” Or checkmate is the rider saying “I squeezed an extra 15 seconds off my time.” 
Strategy is the essence of cycling. When I lie down the night before a ride I visualize all the climbs and downhills. Is this hill long and gradual, or short and steep? What comes after it? Where is the perfect spot to attack? I want to be over the top before I run out of steam. How much energy do I save to finish the rest of the ride? How am I feeling? Did I get to bed early or late? When do I eat?
Throw in another factor like my super-competitive wife riding with me and the game becomes even more complex. It’s a wonder I can sleep. 
Lately I’ve been considering a really terrible ride. In the U.S. it ranks in the top ten most difficult for endurance. Right here in Fresno each June a couple hundred cyclists do the Climb to Kaiser. It is a monster starting at close to sea level and taking a deviously indirect route (with plenty of extra climbs thrown in) to Kaiser Pass in the Sierra Nevada at 9200 feet elevation. The ride is 155 miles long and climbs 15,000 feet. 
I’m about 10 pounds overweight. I’m slow and get winded on the 30 mile ride I’ve been doing lately. C2K is five months away. I need to be able to do a moderate century ride (100 miles) in eight weeks. In another eight weeks I need to be able to finish a century ride with 10,000 feet of climbing in 8 to 10 hours.
I consult a book called “Cycling Past 50.” It gives training plans for old guys like me. It tells me I probably don’t have enough time to prepare. I can do difficult training rides every week but can’t push too hard or I will injure my aging knees. 
I go through the next 18 weeks in my mind. It’s tight, and probably not realistic. I have other obligations/commitments. Training will probably be interrupted often. My wife thinks I’m crazy. Everything tells me I should save it for next year. But my heart (not my heart rate) says, “Go for it! You might not live that long.” 
I’ve decided I will give it my best and if my body wins this match, so be it. I never was very good at chess anyway. I will let you know how it goes. 

*Bonking is a cycling term that describes the body shutting down. Without warning a person suddenly has no energy and might even feel nauseous. Usually bonking signals the end of the ride because quick recovery is practically impossible. I once bonked at about mile 75 of a planned 200 mile ride. I was very disappointed as I stopped at a little general store. I bought two Coca-Colas and guzzled them down, rested about 15 minutes, and tried to keep going. Being 29 years old probably helped because after the caffeine kicked in I was able to press on and finish the 200 miles. It took me 18 hours, though. 

RIP Funny Whiskers

My wife walked out of the dining room bearing a fish net and a distressed expression. “Funny Whiskers died!” she said. After 15 years our brave little algae eater had earned his reward.*

Funny Whiskers was tiny, maybe the length of two quarters placed side to side, yet he existed in a fish tank full of behemoths. We bought the tank and the fish for our six-year old daughter as a reward for learning to read. We thought we were buying Funny Whiskers as a tool to help keep the tank clean. We didn’t know he would become one of our favorites.

The most endearing thing about Funny Whiskers was how he swam. It was more of a waddle than a swim. While the other fish glided gracefully along, Funny Whiskers wiggled. And he never rested. The clown loaches took naps, and the other algae eater only came out of the caves at night, but Funny Whiskers never stopped swimming from the day he entered our house.

I admired Funny Whiskers for minding his own business. Often there was drama between the fish in the tank. Sucker the algae eater (that grew to become a speckled, 14-inch long monster with dangerously spiny fins) had seizures. Without warning he thrashed and thumped all over the tank, upsetting the clown loaches as they scrambled for safety. During these times Funny Whiskers wiggled over to the leafy corners of the tank and continued his business. He seemed to be a happy fish.

Watching him live his own life in his little world, busily wiggling along doing I know not what, (we never saw him eat), was inspiring. Maybe he was an example of being in the world but not of the world. I don’t know. But he made us feel happy. Just the way an uncle or grandparent who lives far enough away to be fun during short, infrequent visits makes a person feel.

Maybe he was teaching us that we don’t have to save the world to be happy. As long as we take care of the things in our own part of the tank we can let the big fish thrash around all they want. They might be inconvenient at times but ultimately they are pretty unimportant to our own purpose in life. He was a good fish.

What is California-Harvest?

Blogs are like Amway. We all have to write one sometime, even if it tests, or strains, our friendships. And, like most Amway businesses, the majority of blogs are inconsequential. So, welcome to my Amway, I mean, blog experience.

I expect to write about things I know, and promise any readers that I will do my best to be truthful. Keep in mind, though, that one should never confuse sincerity with truth. In the end, it’s up to each of us to determine what has value.

The title of the blog is California Harvest because ultimately I am an agrarian transplant. I was raised in urban California, but grew to be an informed observer of the rural part of the state. My urban friends find the minutiae of raising food interesting, though it seems commonplace to me. I hope to inform readers of facts that will help them recognize the misrepresentations made by those who (for reasons I have trouble understanding) represent agriculture as nefarious, conniving, greedy, and rapacious.

Food production is like any other industry. It has its share of shysters and schemers, but for the most part it is just a bunch of normal people striving to make a good life for themselves using skills that are a mystery to most. We could say the same about the construction industry, computer programmers, plumbers, and Boy Scout leaders. The more we know about it the more it becomes interesting. At least that’s what I hope for.

I will also throw in general posts about other things I do. I’m as complex, simple, and unique as any other person in this world. I’m an agrarian, a businessman, a bicyclist, a Mormon, a father, a husband, an outdoorsman, and adventurer–expert in some, amateur in most. I live in California, in the United States of America, in this world, and in Fresno. I look forward to describing the world I know as I see it, including a bicycle ride or two. I hope you enjoy my perspective.

For Inauguration Day

One year the Easter Bunny brought a moderately large stuffed animal. It was a rabbit of course (not a duck) but something about its face wasn’t right. Without long floppy ears one might mistake it for a dog. Poor thing, it was straight from the Island of Misfit Toys, but it was soft and floppy and our seven-year old daughter loved it. She named it Fluffy.
Most of my daughter’s stuffed animals talk to us through animal sounds which she interprets.
Even though Fluffy was a rabbit, he made little barking sounds and occasionally howled softly. At first we thought it was amusing and slightly strange to have a barking rabbit at the dinner table, but over time we quit noticing. It didn’t stop being odd. It just wasn’t unusual anymore.
Last Christmas break when our daughter returned from college Fluffy somehow emerged out of storage. He still barked and howled and joined us at the dinner table. He was not quite as vocal, but he was there. My wife and I barely noticed.
And so, on Inauguration Day, I would like to advise my friends who are disturbed by the advent of our new unorthodox president, relax! He might actually come from the Island of Misfit Toys, and be a little (or a lot) disturbing, but he’s part of the family now. We will all get used to him eventually. Just give it some time.