By Trudy Wischemann
I was coming back from the Fresno airport last week when I ran into a pocket of despair. Sometimes it takes a while to come back from hitting one of those.
I took the long way home, the back roads angling through vineyards and orchards, alternating south, then east along the diagonal front of the Sierra foothills. Section by section, mile after mile, there were signs of dissolution of the very web of our valley’s life. Normally I am revived by this drive, encouraged by the sight of one fruit-farming family’s place after another. But the families are disappearing, leaving trails of abandoned equipment and empty barns, houses removed leaving squares of bare ground behind. The agricultural landscape of Fresno County’s Kings River fan is beginning to look like ours.
I hadn’t realized how much the reshaping of our agricultural landscape has been depressing me until I saw the disease spreading north. Some lines from a Tom Paxton song showed up: “Are you going away with no word of farewell? Will there be not a trace left behind?” Then the songwriter brings us home: “Well, I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind; that was the last thing on my mind.”
My despair at the loss is amplified by knowing that my small attempts to prevent it have failed. I don’t know what can be done to turn around the trends leading us to rural depopulation and cultural oblivion. Here in the citrus belt the packinghouses are mechanizing right under our noses, eliminating 75% of the jobs that feed our towns, but nobody sees it coming. The small farmers are being vanquished by Cuties and Halos. The flow of incomes from the land have moved from trickling up to trickling down. The costs of the so-called economies of scale will be borne more and more by our communities and countryside. Lord.
The only hope I find comes from the experience of some friends who worked in the Tulare Lake Basin restoring wetlands for migrating waterfowl. Based in Alpaugh, where hope is a little hard to come by, they worked through BLM (where hope is also a little hard to come by) and built ponds on retired farmland with water purchased from Alpaugh I.D. They had no way to know whether the provision of this habitat would help the declining numbers of birds, but they did it anyway. In the first year there was a small increase, but each year thereafter, the increase was astounding. “We had no idea the birds would come back so fast,” my friends said.
You could call it an experience in loving better, in stopping being so unkind, even though the unkindness of eliminating bird habitat to plow soybean fields is totally accepted in this culture. The acreage in new ponds was a tiny fraction of the habitat that once was there, but still, it helped beyond their wildest imaginings. So it seems to me that we could love our lives here a little better, stop being so uncaring about the outcomes of these trends on our neighbors and our communities. Perhaps they’ll come back faster than we can imagine — if we just try.
Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate who writes. You can send her your small farmer sightings c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.