The Magazine

How Green Was My Valley

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By KARI BARBIC
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California tops the list of states in budgetary crisis, but the grim headlines forecasting the Golden State's collapse only make me think back to the vibrant scenes of my childhood in the San Joaquin Valley.

The valley isn't a glamorous part of California. Few visitors do more than breeze through Bakersfield on their way to Los Angeles or refuel in Fresno en route to Yosemite. By comparison with the bays and beaches of the Pacific coast, the middle of the state just doesn't offer much to see. At least not in the touristy or cultural sense.

But the valley is the state's agricultural epicenter, and as the daughter of a valley grower, I spent a good part of my childhood in the 1980s learning to appreciate the agriculture industry. My dad managed stone fruit production for a large produce company based in Bakersfield, and he made every Saturday take-your-child-to-work day.

My brother and I would climb into Dad's work truck and leave our suburban home to head for the orchards--or "ranches"--every Saturday morning. This gave our mom, who taught us at home Monday through Friday, a much-needed break. And it gave us a day alone with Dad. He laid down simple rules for these trips--use the restroom at the company office (no stopping once we're out on the ranch), stay away from the boxed beehives, and watch out for rattlesnakes.

Dad's office was adjacent to a packing shed and around the corner from a "cold storage." The packing shed housed rows of conveyor belts designed to move the fruit to stations where it was packed for storage or shipment, but early on Saturdays the packing lines were usually still. The cold storage was a mystery, forbidden because of its low temperatures and forklifts. Dad would disappear into the refrigerated building alone, leaving to my imagination the experience of wandering a larger-than-life refrigerator.

My favorite part of the day was driving around the orchards. I loved seeing the seemingly endless rows of trees--the settled order of it all. I had no concept of "woods" then because all the trees in my world came in neat rows and grew no more than 10 feet high, pruned for easier, safer picking.On a clear day in the San Joaquin, you could see not only the foothills rising beyond the rows but the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Tehachapi Mountains surrounding the southern tip of the valley. If time allowed, we would end the day with a long drive up and down the roads of the ranches in the foothills. To my brother and me, it was like having our own personal kiddie coaster. Our favorite ranch to drive we called "the Moon" for its crater-like dips. For a few minutes all that existed were those blissful hills.

Saturdays had to come to an end, of course, and we would return to conventional life. Peaches and plums were never the same at the grocery store. They always seemed smaller and less glorious. Whenever we were at a grocery store with Dad, he always "needed" to inspect the produce section. For what seemed like an hour, he would check ripeness and size and look for any damage, such as scarring. Then he would point to the prices above the produce displays and tell us that growers saw only a small percentage of that price, what was left after the costs of farming, packing, storing, and shipping were factored in. I wouldn't fully understand these lessons until I went to work in the business myself.

Three summers I worked in offices at a local packing shed and cold storage. After long days on the job, Dad and I would talk about Rose Diamonds and Snow Kings and air shipments to Taiwan. And later, a time would come when I could be found in the produce section of my own local grocery store inspecting, just as I'd been taught.

When I go home to visit these days, there are fewer trees in the valley. Independent growers downsize or slowly pull out, as the costs of farming rise. Empty patches of land litter the landscape, and orderly, once prosperous orchards are gradually replaced with signs that say "For sale or lease."

Yet my dad, always willing to teach me more about "the business we have chosen," doesn't look on this scene with melancholy. "This has just been a bad year," he says. "But once you finish a season, that's the past." To persevere in farming, you must have what Dad calls the "optimism of the farmer." As he says, "You have to believe that next year will be better."

KARI BARBIC