The Other Side of the Valley | Barry Estabrook

from Gastronomica 11:4

By San Joaquin valley standards, Tom Willey’s farm is so puny that I sped past it without noticing. My mind had been swept away by the region’s agoraphobia-inducing sense of infinite vastness. Ruler-straight byways traverse miles of almond trees planted on precise geometric grids like perfectly drilled soldiers. Those give way to tracts of grape vines trellised in parallel rows stretching to the horizon, followed by green oceans of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and alfalfa running to the base of distant blue-gray mountains.

There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.

On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”

The governor of the local Slow Food chapter, Willey is a stubborn pioneer among a group of agricultural contrarians who are bucking the cycle of commodity production in the Central Valley—what he calls “producing food widgets.” He ticked off other like-minded mavericks. Hidden in plain sight amidst huge industrial farms, they include a grower of the world’s sweetest apricots; a rancher whose cattle spend their entire lives eating grass on pasture; a third-generation Japanese American rice-producing brother and sister team who still adhere to the standards of quality established by their grandfather; and a born-again factory-scale dairy farmer turned farmstead cheesemaker who has won the highest awards in the world.

Through their efforts, these outliers are fashioning a new paradigm for American agriculture, with farms that are large enough to distribute regionally and even nationally, but still small enough to grow food that has real taste. If alternative agriculture can take root in what many consider to be the heart of everything that is wrong with our broken, industrial food system, then it can flourish anywhere.

With his cascading white beard, faded jeans held up by suspenders, and ever-present baseball cap, the sixty-three year-old Willey looks just like what he is: the granddaddy of sustainable agriculture. When he started out in the 1970s, Willey farmed with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, just like virtually everybody else in the area. But when he bought his own land in the early 1980s, he realized that he had to use more fertilizer and pesticide each season to replicate the yields of the previous year. He went organic in 1984. Willey’s definition of sustainability also extends to his workers. He specifically designs his planting schedule and crop selections to generate a twelve-month harvest, giving his employees year-round work, rather than relying on temporary laborers who are the mainstays of Big Ag in California. “Farmworkers shouldn’t be migratory,” he explained. “They should be part of the community.”

When the first American explorers came to the valley, they encountered a barren land of kangaroo rats and brown grasses. “The most miserable country that I have ever beheld … little better than a desert,” wrote George Horatio Derby, an army topographer in 1850. Two decades later, Moses J. Church built a crude dam across the Kings River, introducing irrigation to the arid land. Now, thanks to clever hydraulic engineers and canny politicians, the Central Valley’s 450-mile-long, mountain-rimmed trough of rich alluvial soil is watered by one of the world’s most elaborate canal and aqueduct systems. It is home to four of the five biggest farming counties in the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. “The world’s richest agricultural valley,” as the late University of California Berkeley geographer James J. Parsons called it, is a throbbing food-generating machine that pumps out poultry, beef, dairy products, and more than 250 different crops: oranges, lemons, apricots, peaches, plums, cherries, apples, figs, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, asparagus, avocados, grapes, onions, lettuce, artichokes, zucchini, and tomatoes, to list a sampling. According to the authors of A Field Guide to California Agriculture, Parsons also said that the valley was the most interesting place in the world—”if you happened to be wired for the complexities of agriculture.”

CandyCot apricots grown by John Driver at his orchard in Waterford, California, east of Modesto. (photograph by David Karp © 2008)

Barely an hour north of Willey’s farm, John Fiscalini introduced me to his vision of the future of dairying. Started by his grandfather, who emigrated from Switzerland in the 1890s, the farm is home to 1,500 cows. In a space that looked as sanitary as a hospital room, two Hispanic men in white cloaks were stacking slabs of blonde cheese curd in a stainless-steel trough. Within a few hours, the curd would begin the aging process in an adjacent room that was stacked to the rafters with rounds of cheddar. In breezy, open-sided barns, Holstein and Brown Swiss cows lay in clean stalls chewing their cud. Cleanliness and contented cows are the keys to producing quality milk and cheese, according to Fiscalini.

A decade ago, tired of having all the milk he took such care producing dumped into anonymous tanks with that of less-conscientious dairymen, the sixty-two-year-old Fiscalini decided to begin making farmstead cheese. He flubbed his first attempt at making a Fontina-style product. The brilliant, yellow result bore only a faint resemblance to Fontina, but customers loved it. Fiscalini has been replicating his error ever since, and San Joaquin Gold—a “gold medal mistake”—has become a popular seller in high-end grocery stores and grocery shops throughout the country and has won top honors in national competitions. Fiscalini has received even higher acclaim for his cloth-wrapped English-style cheddar, an extra-mature cheese that took first place in the 2007 World Cheese Awards in London.

At a time when other Central Valley dairies are cutting back or going out of business, Fiscalini has his eyes on expansion. He recently installed a system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by converting manure into enough methane gas to fuel an engine that generates nearly three times as much electricity as his farm uses. He has drawn up plans for an underground cave and an expanded cheesemaking facility, complete with a visitors’ center. His goal is to continue to grow that side of his business until every drop of the milk produced by the 1,500 cows on his farm is made into cheese, up from the current level of about 10 percent. He hopes that marketing Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese will encourage his two daughters who “don’t like shoving their arm up a cow’s rectum or getting their clothes covered in manure” to stay on the farm.

On the eastern side of the valley, beneath blazing sunshine and cloudless skies, with the gleaming white peaks of Yosemite in the background, apricot trees grow in neat rows around John Driver’s house. Producing apricots that people genuinely like, Driver insists, is the only way a small grower like him can survive in competition with “the big boys.”

To find an apricot that would trump the rest, Driver, a plant geneticist in his late fifties who also grows walnuts and almonds, scoured the valleys of Central Asia. Nowhere else comes close to having the genetic variation found there. For more than a decade, Driver brought the seeds of ultrasweet, intensely flavored specimens back to his orchards, seeking varieties that would flourish. By 2006 he had found trees that met his standards. Picked when fully ripe (unlike conventional apricots that are harvested green), Driver’s apricots, branded as CandyCots, are sold in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market and through Whole Foods Markets and specialty fruit stores in Los Angeles and New York.

Driver laid out several on his dining-room table. They were smaller than usual apricots—about the size of golf balls—and had deeply orange, almost persimmon-colored flesh. The intensity of their sweetness was an epiphany, with a bright edge and a complex background of floral and spicy flavors. “Frankly, most apricots sold are really bad,” said Driver. “They are just decorations for the grocery store. I can’t eat them, and consumers don’t like them.”

On the opposite side of the valley from Driver’s orchards, Robin Koda and her brother, Ross, are going against the grain of industrial agriculture, literally. The Kodas have been successfully growing and milling artisanal rice near Los Banos for three generations. After their grandfather successfully developed a rice business in the 1920s and 1930s, the farm was stripped to nothing when he was forced into an internment camp during the Second World War. After the war, his sons rebuilt the operation. According to Robin, they developed the first commercially grown sweet rice in the United States and the first premium medium-grain rice, called Kokuho Rose.

“To most Americans, rice is just filler,” said Robin. To change that attitude, the Kodas have had to master all aspects of the business: they are plant breeders, seed producers, farmers, millers, and marketers. When I visited, the fields were freshly plowed. Planting—mid May—was still weeks away. In a long, low building, hundreds of numbered paper bags were lined up on the floor, each topped by a few stalks of rice with the grains still attached. Every bag, Ross explained, represented a sample taken from the previous year’s harvest. At the beginning of each season, he painstakingly examines each one, selecting only those that meet the exacting standards set down by his father, and grading each batch like a strict schoolmaster. If the grains are of uneven size, if there are too many broken grains, if overly white “chalky” grains are present—the sample fails and is discarded. Then he takes the best and grows them for three seasons in test plots until he has amassed enough seed to sow all of his fields. From an industrial farming perspective, Kokuho Rose is a loser: slow to mature, low yielding, and too tall. From a culinary perspective, it shines with subtle floral flavors. Martha Stewart has praised it as the best sushi rice on the market.

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Seth Nitschke is raising beef cattle “the way God intended”—eating grass on pastures near the hamlet of Cherry Valley. Conventional cattle are shipped off to vast feedlots. Earlier I had driven past one near Coalinga owned by Harris Ranch: a black, muddy, fetid square mile packed with nearly 100,000 cattle, not a tree or blade of grass in sight.

“The way I do it is more expensive and takes longer, but the cattle get fat, and we produce a better product. The cows are not maxed out to all their livers can handle. We don’t need hormones or antibiotics,” Nitschke said. From the crown of his worn Stetson to the pointy toes of his boots, he is every inch a cowboy. A 1999 graduate in livestock management from California Polytechnic State University, he became familiar with the industrial side of meat production during a stint as a cattle buyer for Excel Fresh Meats, a division of agribusiness giant Cargill. He took a 180-degree turn five years ago when he decided to strike out on his own.

The day I was with him, Nitschke had a problem that the folks at the Harris feedlot never face: He couldn’t find his cattle. We set off on his mud-spattered all-terrain vehicle, me holding on to the bucking contraption for dear life as we bounced over streambeds and blasted up steep hillsides of Mariposa Ranch, the 1,100-acre tract that he leases. Stopping near a copse of oaks, Nitschke cupped his hands to his mouth and issued an authentic moo. Within minutes, several dozen stocky, black cows emerged from the woods. “The real cowboys say that I’m producing ‘hippie chow,'” Nitschke said. “But I have a whole lot of customers who love what I do, and I sleep well at night.”

On my last day in the valley, I stopped into the Escalon Livestock Market, which bills itself as the strongest livestock market in the valley. Brawny pickup trucks and cattle trailers filled the parking lot, and the air was thick with the aroma of manure. A cacophony of bellowing and bawling and mooing came from the auction barn. In the theater-like auditorium, enormous Holstein cows were paraded one by one into a small corral while an auctioneer rattled along in a nonstop chant. I couldn’t understand a word, but the rest of the audience, mostly cowboy-hatted professional buyers, did, and each cow had but a few seconds in the limelight before changing hands and being driven out to make way for the next animal on the block.

Out of my depth, I wandered outside and found myself at Escalon’s weekly small-animal auction, where the atmosphere was more like a country fair, right down to the aroma of deep-fried food emanating from the snack bar. A crowd made up of suburban farmers, aging hippies, twentysomething back-to-the-landers, wide-eyed toddlers, Mexican women, youthful 4-H club members, and curiosity seekers strolled among cages of chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail, geese, and rabbits.

The contrast couldn’t have been sharper or more typical of the paradox that is the Central Valley: two auctions, two different worlds—united only by their common connection to food production.