Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist, asked readers where in the world they wanted him to go to write a solid, serious piece for the NYT Magazine's food issue this Sunday. This challenge led him to California's Central Valley, where so much of the food consumed in America comes from — at least for now. He explains why that had to be the place, and shows his excitement at the scale of it all, but sounds the alarm about the future of farming in a region that's filling up with people and by some measures has a sicker environment than urban Los Angeles.
And there's an unexpected media note in the story: Bittman hooks up in Fresno with Mark Arax, the author on California who used to be a reporter for the Los Angeles Times — and the NYT runs Arax's recipe for marinated lamb. How cool is that.
I left Los Angeles at 4 in the morning, long before first light, and made it to Bakersfield — the land of oil derricks, lowriders and truck stops with Punjabi food — by 6. Ten minutes later, I was in the land of carrots....
All told, the Central Valley is about 450 miles long, from Bakersfield up to Redding, and is 60 miles at its widest, between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west. It’s larger than nine different states, but size is only one of its defining characteristics: the valley is the world’s largest patch of Class 1 soil, the best there is. The 25-degree (or so) temperature swing from day to night is an ideal growing range for plants. The sun shines nearly 300 days a year. The eastern half of the valley (and the western, to some extent) uses ice melt from the Sierra as its water source, which means it doesn’t have the same drought and flood problems as the Midwest. The winters are cool, which offers a whole different growing season for plants that cannot take the summer heat. There’s no snow.
The valley became widely known in the 1920s and 1930s, when farmers arrived from Virginia or Armenia or Italy or (like Tom Joad) Oklahoma and wrote home about the clean air, plentiful water and cheap land. Now the valley yields a third of all the produce grown in the United States. Unlike the Midwest, which concentrates (devastatingly) on corn and soybeans, more than 230 crops are grown in the valley, including those indigenous to South Asia, Southeast Asia and Mexico, some of which have no names in English. At another large farm, I saw melons, lettuce, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, chard, collards, prickly pears, almonds, pistachios, grapes and more tomatoes than anyone could conceive of in one place. (The valley is the largest supplier of canned tomatoes in the world too.) Whether you’re in Modesto or Montpelier, there’s a good chance that the produce you’re eating came from the valley...
After reviewing the suggestions, it became clear that readers wanted an article that incorporated big farming, small farming, sustainability, politics, poverty and, of course, truly delicious food — and in the United States, if possible. So I decided to head to the Central Valley, where all of this was already happening. This also happened to satisfy a curiosity of mine. From a desk in New York, it’s impossible to fathom 50 m.p.h. carrots, hills of almonds, acres of basil and millions of tomatoes all ripening at once. How can all of this possibly work?
It's a nice exploration of the valley.