It has been 33 years since I took my first spring drive through California’s San Joaquin Valley. It remains a challenge to focus on the road surrounded by an agricultural Mecca found nowhere else in the world.
This year’s spring sojourn was made earlier this month in a long one-day photo-gathering road trip from Fresno to Corcoran to the San Joaquin Delta west of Lodi and back to Fresno via Highway 99 and Interstate 5.
It was another mesmerizing voyage.
Although it was blustery cold, the San Joaquin Valley air was crisp and clear. Fields of mostly wheat, alfalfa and winter forages were carpets of glistening green.
Orchards and vineyards were awash in new, fresh growth. Signs of continual renewal were everywhere. New vineyards and orchards are still being planted despite ominous irrigation water forecasts and more regulations than any industry should bear. Older orchards top-worked and whitewashed were ready for a new beginning.
The landscape is never the same. Three decades ago in April, thousands of acres were furrowed out, awaiting cotton planters. Few fields were bare awaiting planters in April 2008. Permanent crops, alfalfa and one of the state’s biggest irrigated winter wheat crops made the 2008 spring drive much greener than three decades ago. Dark earth fields were few and far between.
I am no expert, but my prediction is that there is a huge almond harvest in the making. No doubt it is another billion-pounder. Trees seem to be sagging from the weight of the crop much earlier this season. The bloom this year started off a slow, but the weather cleared and a long cool spell seemed to extend the bloom far longer than I can recall from past years. Almond trees were blinding white at bloom time this year.
Driving down I-5, honeybees splattered on the pickup windshield like rocks from 18-wheelers. It would take a one-pound coffee can lid to cover some of the individual bee carnage because the pollinators were so engorged before their demise, another Cline sign of a huge almond crop.
On one stretch of I-5 the smell of citrus blooms filled the pickup. On another stretch the Harris Ranch feed yard filled the cab with an entirely different odor. Forage choppers in another area spawned that fresh cut forage smell.
California’s massive water projects snake along the West Side of the Valley, a constant reminder for us in agriculture that it is the water than makes the Central Valley an agricultural showcase. Without water, it is a desert.
Just south of Los Banos two orchards bring that into stark reality. The trees are tall, nice scaffolding and lined up perfectly ... and all dead as a doornail. The small orchards have been abandoned and not irrigated for several years. They looked like tombstones. It’s what the Central Valley would look like without the imported water.
I passed several sets of doubles lumbering under loads of lettuce boxes and other produce. They were headed to coolers and eventually to a hungry America. Those trucks would be parked and boxes empty without imported water.
Unfortunately, most of the folks in cars speeding down the interstate are from cities and do not make the connection between those dead orchards and the water flowing down the canals and the greenery of the valley.
However for now, springtime journeys through California’s great Central Valley are still invigorating. It only makes me appreciate that much more where I call home and how much harder I want to work to preserve an irreplaceable bounty.