Archives for posts with tag: Central Valley

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

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Driving north on the New York State Thruway, on the way to Saratoga Springs, I noticed that several clumps of brown leaves pockmarked the foliage of the many normally verdant trees that line the right of way.  It looked strange—the lush green of the deciduous forest is one of the characteristics that distinguish summer in the northeast from other, drier, places I have known, such as the Central Valley of California where I grew up (everything turns straw-colored there).

At first I wondered what could be afflicting the trees, most of them maples, which I think of as resistant to disease and insects.  And then it came to me:  the brown and drying branchlets are sites of 17-year cicada eggs.  Female cicadas gnaw shallow notches in the branches into which they deposit their eggs; the notches cause the branches to die.  This phenomenon is considered the only significant downside to the emergence of the insects which otherwise cause no permanent damage (even if they do create a mess).

I do not recall observing any dead branches after the last cycle (in 1996) but I have noticed a few on some of our trees this time around.  Luckily, the condition is temporary and the trees should return to normal next year.

I grew up in the central valley of California and did not experience much snow (I think it snowed just once while I was in elementary school).  I’ve only lived in a snowy climate since moving east (about 25 years ago) and consequently, I still think of snowstorms as magical events.  The snow is peaceful as it falls—usually, without a sound—and the snow-covered landscapes that result are brilliantly beautiful and picture-postcard perfect.

But the beauty eventually fades.  First, the snow settles and compacts and in the process loses its light and fluffy appearance.  When temperatures are warm during the day but cold at night, the surface melts and then refreezes resulting in a dull, lackluster (literally) sheen.

Dust and dirt are thrown onto the snow (mostly by passing cars) and as it melts, the concentration of these materials increases.  Dogs being walked leave their marks as do the coffee and soft drinks spilled by their owners.  Litter accumulates and anything that would be absorbed into the ground in a warmer season remains on the surface.

At about this stage, many people get tired of looking at the snow.  As a visiting friend jadedly remarked during our trip to the Vanderbilt Mansion at New Year’s (see December 31, 2012), despite the spectacular view, he’s seen enough snowy landscapes already this winter.  While I was busily photographing snowdrifts and frosted trees, he was hunting for new sights to shoot.

As the snow banks melt further, they become jagged and sharp, like alpine cirques and horns.  With continued exposure to the sun, the landscape becomes less and less snow-covered and more and more unfinished-looking.  When the snow has thinned and only scattered patches remain, it starts to resemble an albino form of slime mold.  Finally, only the larger clumps of snow—the result of shoveling and plowing—remain, looking like wads of paper, littered by an uncovered garbage truck.

But then it snows again and the magic is restored.  For me, anyway.

The farmers’ market in my boyhood home has become quite an elaborate affair.  It is located in the town’s Central Park, the southern half of which was a vacant lot when I was in school (my brother tells me the former Central School was located there until just after my family arrived in the early 1960s), under a large steel canopy erected solely for the market.  The structure resembles a long, open barn—such as would be found on a dairy farm, for instance—which I am sure is no coincidence.

The market runs the year ‘round (yet another advantage of the mild valley climate) and attracts many vendors.  The Saturday morning gathering, which we visited during our visit (I’m a bit out of sync here) in anticipation of a later picnic with my brother, was crowded and bustling with more stands than could fit under the canopy.  At least half a dozen stalls extended beyond the north end.  Luckily, the weather was clear and warm (also auspicious for our lunch) and no one seemed to mind being out in the sun.  The market also operates on Wednesday evenings; in the summer, local restaurants set up booths and sell picnic dinners.

Whereas the produce at our market at home is becoming limited to fall staples like squash, potatoes and hardy greens, the fruits and vegetables here are still of the spring and summer variety.  There were strawberries from Watsonville, grapes from Fresno and berries from a variety of towns I didn’t recognize (one complaint about this market is that the vendors are not restricted in the distance between here and their farms).

The grapes in particular caught our eyes both for their freshness and spectrum of vibrant colors.  This bounty also produced similarly multi-colored raisins that were delectably plump and moist.  We purchased a few bunches of grapes for our picnic as well as a bag of raisins to take back home.

Also of note were the nuts and dates.  The nuts arrived from some of the nearest farms—there are large groves of almond and walnut trees immediately to the west of town—and were probably harvested only days ago.  We bought a bag of roasted almonds (with olive oil and salt; yum) for snacking and resisted the urge to buy one of every other variety (our suitcase can only hold so much).

The dates, on the other hand, probably traveled the farthest, having been grown in the Coachella Valley in the southern end of the state (at Leja Farms).  I have no idea when they would have been harvested and only know that they take a while to ripen after picking.  After tasting a few samples, we picked out a large container of large medjool dates.  They were the largest I’d ever seen and had a smooth, velvety texture and intense sweetness.

At most, I think I could eat only one or two at a sitting (yes, that sweet) but they will be a wonderful basis for sweetbreads and milkshakes (a favorite, but maybe that’s another post) and a nice addition to salads (particularly with spinach and fennel).

As we were paying, the farmer asked where we were from and when we responded (New York), she threw in another small container of dates as a reward, I guess, for coming from so far away just to buy her dates.  It turns out that she grew up in an Amish community in northwestern New York and spent a lot of time traveling between there and other Amish enclaves in northeastern Ohio (she was growing apples at the time).  We lived in Oberlin, Ohio for a couple of years and mentioning this fact only strengthened the spontaneous (albeit temporary) bond between us.

We thanked her for her act of (near-random) kindness and vowed to pay it forward by sharing the dates when we returned home.

With a bit of free time between visits with family—a beautiful picnic in the park with my brother yesterday, breakfast with my sisters this morning and dinner with Mom tonight—we decided to take a leisurely Sunday drive.  We’ve been renting cars from Hertz for many years and sometimes, they give us a free upgrade.  Usually, they offer us a larger car than we asked for, a full-size sedan, say, or an SUV.  And usually, we decline it.  We don’t like to drive large vehicles and they are harder to park.

But on this trip, when we arrived at the lot, we found a 2013 Ford Mustang waiting for us.  What a treat!  Zero to 70 in no time (it is powered by an eight-cylinder, 420-HP engine, my sister later informed me) with very responsive handling.  Attractive, too.  It is the only car I’ve ever driven which draws admiring stares from the people we pass (young men, mostly).  Of course, it is not very practical (with only two doors and no back-seat legroom, it does not accommodate a large family) and probably guzzles gas.  A nice car to rent but I wouldn’t want to own one.

We pointed the car in the direction of the coastal foothills between the Central and Napa valleys.  As we passed through the eastern edge of the vast alluvial plain that is the agricultural heart of California and began our ascent into the Vaca Mountains, the terrain became increasingly rugged and dry.  Farmsteads and croplands gave way to rolling slopes of buff-colored grasses (parched after a long, hot summer) dotted with scrub oak and sagebrush.  It is a landscape of austere beauty that only a native son (or daughter) could love.

It is not until several miles beyond Lake Berryessa that the woods thickened, the topography steepened and we got the feeling of being in the mountains.  The twists and turns of the narrow highway posed a test to my driving skills and the car’s handling.  The road felt more closed to the sky and sections extended beneath a canopy of outstretched tree branches, many of them draped with thick strands of Spanish moss (apparently, this was a good year for the bromeliad).

But this is wine country and wherever the road left a space between its shoulder and the foot of the adjacent slope, some enterprising winery had installed a vineyard.  I like the appearance of vineyards—especially the newer, strictly rectilinear variety with their regularly spaced rows of carefully pruned vines—and delight in finding vest-pocket versions in seemingly unlikely places.  Based on the prices of land in the valleys, however, it is not really surprising that some growers have chosen to invest sweat equity into small plots with difficult geography.

Apparently, our visit occurred shortly after harvest time as none of the vines we observed still bore any fruit.  In fact, the grapevines had started to turn color, replacing the deep red or luminous green of the grape clusters with bright yellow and red leaves.  If we had continued our drive into the Napa Valley, we would have found the air heavy with the yeasty aroma of primary fermentation.  From a sensory point of view, it is a good time to be here.

Deep in the woods and near the peak of the mountain pass, we found Nichelini Family Winery.  The property was homesteaded in the late 1800s and the winery was founded shortly thereafter.  It is still run by the family (currently on its sixth generation) and we enjoyed a tasting and history lesson from Phil Sunseri, a fourth-generation Nichelini.  We had the place to ourselves (one benefit of visiting early on a Sunday) and took a short tour of the property—wineglasses in hand—to see the original 12-foot by 12-foot homestead cabin.

We ended up buying three bottles of wine (how could we resist?) and when we got back into the car, decided to quit while we were ahead.  We turned the car around and headed back towards home wondering how on earth we were going to get our wine back to New York.