In 1973, as I was going through customs in New York after spending the summer bumming around Italy and Greece, the customs agent looked at my passport and said with a Bronx sneer, “Bruce Thornton, huh? Is that one of them Hollywood names?” Hearing that astonishing statement, I realized for the first time that California is more of a distorted idea than a place. There were few regions more distant from Hollywood than the rural, mostly poor, multiethnic San Joaquin Valley, where my family had a ranch. Yet to this New Yorker, the Valley didn’t exist. And it doesn’t exist for many today, because it doesn’t conform to the fantasy of California better expressed in the state’s Hollywood south and dot-com north.
This ignorance of the “other” California has significance beyond illustrating the parochial sensibility of city dwellers. The San Joaquin Valley is the world’s most productive agricultural region and one of the great achievements of modern engineering, created by storing and diverting water from the Sierra Nevada and using it to irrigate what were once semi-arid grasslands. The San Joaquin Valley boasts five of the nation’s top ten counties in farm-production value, and they account for almost three-quarters of California’s $36 billion in annual agricultural revenues derived from the sale of 400 commodities. Yet even in California, many people either don’t know or don’t care that their lives and civilization rest on the shoulders of those who produce their food.
Our wired-in, high-tech world is made possible by the agricultural industry that produces the food we take for granted. Yet “agribusiness” is usually depicted as a corporate villain like Big Pharma or Big Oil, producing junk food oozing with high-fructose corn syrup and toxic pesticides while exploiting the labor of Mexican immigrants. Of course, the business of producing food, like all businesses, is concerned with making a profit. No doubt it has unsavory aspects, as do the academic, entertainment, medical, and journalism industries. But the rest of us can be professors, actors, doctors, and reporters only because we don’t have to spend ten hours a day cultivating the food that we need to survive.
That simple existential fact makes the contemptuous indifference to the San Joaquin Valley indulged by the California coastal elites a species of moral idiocy. Worse yet, it leads to policies detrimental to the region’s economic well-being. Diverting water from the Valley and dumping it into the Pacific during a drought to protect the three-inch Delta smelt, as happened a few years ago, is the most recent example. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost and land left uncultivated just so city dwellers could indulge their romantic environmentalism, a luxury of the well-fed who take the abundance of food for granted. It’s a safe bet that if San Francisco’s drinking water came through the Delta pumps, the smelt would have been history.
This year’s enormous Sierra Nevada snowpack has defused the water crisis for now. But California still has on the books myriad environmental regulations, most based on bad science or irrational prejudice, that make the business of growing food more costly and difficult than it need be. The bias against chemical pesticides and fertilizers—which across the globe have saved billions from malnutrition and starvation by exponentially increasing productivity—has led to Byzantine regulatory protocols that increase costs and impede production. Obviously, where science has definitively shown a danger, we need regulation. But many of the rules California farmers must now negotiate are aimed at minimizing risks equivalent to the danger of drowning in water a quarter-inch deep.
Truth is, agriculture is not just another industry, but rather the precondition for civilization itself. The historical progress of agricultural improvement that liberated more and more people from the drudgery of providing food was the precondition of our urban industrialized world. Today only about two people out of 100 are directly involved in the production of food, compared with 90 out of 100 in the late eighteenth century. The goods and services that make up our lives, from computers to movies, are luxuries we can create and afford because of this new freedom. Remember that the next time you start grocery shopping—or pontificating.