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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.

It’s almost Halloween and we don’t have a Jack O’Lantern.  In fact, we don’t have any pumpkins at all.  Although the weather outside is less than inviting, a trip to a local pumpkin patch seemed in order.  We haven’t been to one in many years, having purchased pumpkins at the farmers’ market or supermarket the last few Halloweens, and remembered a place just a few miles north of us.  After checking Google Maps to remind ourselves where it is located, we set off in that direction.

Our destination was Fishkill Farms which is located, in what seems to me an unlikely spot, near the intersection of US Route 9 and Interstate Highway 84.  Well, the turnoff is located at this most unfarmlike location at the edge of a commercial and warehouse district typical of highway interchanges.  The farm itself is a few miles away, closer to the Taconic State Parkway.

The small road quickly wound its way up and away from the town, over a ridge and down into the next valley.  After a few turns, we found ourselves at the edge of a large clearing over which the fields and orchards are spread.  The farm is surrounded by subdivisions on three sides where suburbs meet rural farmland.  We parked the car and quickly walked through the farm store (quite busy and crowded only three days before Halloween) and towards the pumpkin patch.

The first thing that struck me about this patch is that it is long and narrow, the equivalent of three rows of trees wide by at least a quarter of a mile long.  The second thing that I noticed is that an incredible variety of winter squashes have been grown here.  They range in size from baby acorns through the traditional pumpkins used for Jack O’Lanterns and up to the humongous varieties that are often entered into contests for largest specimen.  I didn’t recognize half of them.  This late in the season, with the vines withered and dead, it looks like the squashes were scattered around what was otherwise an empty field.

The third thing that makes this pumpkin patch interesting—and another consequence of the late date—is the equally diverse variety of molds that have sprouted on many of the gourds.  The pumpkins have been sitting here for weeks in the rain and damp and many have started to rot.  They make a fertile medium for funguses and other icky growths.

We soon found our pumpkins—they spoke to us in the same way that Christmas trees do—and started back to the store to pay for them.  On the way, we passed a mobile chicken coop (similar to those we saw at Glynwood Farm) and then walked along a row of apple trees.  The fruit had already been picked and the fallen and discarded apples scattered on the ground had begun to ferment.  The sweet (and slightly sharp) aroma added another sensory element to the beautiful fall tableau.

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.