In January 2002 after more than 23 years in Nebraska and a year stint teaching/traveling in China, I finally finished my undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska and promptly fled the Great Plains for the Elusive Eden. After the light shock of difficult parking, high traffic, and idiotic housing prices I fell in love with my strange new home in the Bay Area. My first big California surprise was not the preponderance of far out community activists and ridiculous law proposals: Reading up on Berkeley prepared me for that. Nor was I very alarmed by the fatal shooting a few blocks from my apartment on Alcatraz Ave that first month. Instead my surprise came months later on a summer late night road trip to Los Angeles with my visiting brothers.
After spending the day with my old China roommate at his home near Chico, my two younger brothers and I began our long journey south not long after sunset. We finally passed Sacramento around 11pm. I can best describe the eeriness of the next six hours of travel observations using sci-fi geek terms: I witnessed a reverse Dave Bowman experience. If you may recall the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: The Space Odyssey, stranded astronaut David Bowman encountered a massive black monolith near Jupiter/Saturn and entered into a psychedelic world of lights. In the film’s 1980s sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact we learn Bowman’s last spoken words were “My God! It's full of stars!” Well, that night driving along the western cusp of the Central Valley I could only exclaim the opposite to myself: “my god, it’s devoid of lights!!!” As a Nebraskan, I knew rural stretches of interstate are typically fairly dull and far from towns, but this was like driving through a desert. That night I barely saw a single terrestrial light anywhere along that long western expanse of the Central Valley except for an occasional gas station. I asked myself, what kind of farmland is this?
I’m not sure I can effectively express my surprise at the above dark discovery. My entire childhood was spent in rural Nebraska, less than an hour from the Missouri River. My town of 3,500 was the largest town in a 35 mile radius, yet ANY point in that 35 mile radius was always within walking or jogging distance of numerous family farms with houses and lights, typically surrounded by a tiny grove of trees. I viewed similar environments in my young adulthood across such agricultural states as Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio. It always seemed natural to me that both crop and livestock agriculture require nearby PEOPLE to work the land/livestock and serve as personal caretakers.
So why does California’s Central Valley contain so few family farms? Where are all the lights and houses? Honestly I don’t know the definitive answer to this and did not have time to discover it (I’d need countless hours of researching and would probably go beyond the scope of this paper). I can only speculate that some combination of the following things first fostered California’s warped agriculture: •First, Mexican California already featured many massive ranchos long before America gained control. These super-sized land holdings would naturally tend to remain large and...