The Fertile Valley
This isn’t a story about me but I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for an hour. I don’t know how to tell you where I am without telling you how I got here.
I grew up in the Midwest, in a small suburban town set among the corn and soy fields of Central Indiana. My high school was surrounded by corn on three sides. I have a vivid memory of staring out a classroom window into the perfect rows that went on forever and caught the morning light in a particular way. I never got straight As.
I moved to California 15 years ago, leaving behind the state I was born and raised. I’ve lived in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, spending time in those cities and between them. Between them is a flat, two-lane section of Interstate-5 that drones and dulls for three, four, and then five hours. Sometimes more. I’ve driven that stretch more times than I can count for more reasons than I can remember. During those hours on that highway California always reminds me of home.
In California’s Central Valley lies some of the most productive, integral farm land in the country. If you’ve been to the produce section of your grocery lately or ever, chances are you purchased something from California. Good chances. In 2013 62% of fruits and 51% of vegetables produced in the United States grew in the Central Valley. That same year the value of those crops reached near 50 billion dollars. If you like to eat the importance of this land cannot be understated.
For four years drought has punished California’s landscape and squeezed its water supply near dry. The effects of the drought are easy to notice and myopic to ignore. Borne from an ethereal familiarity of the area I cannot describe, I applied for and received a VSCO Artist Initiative grant to photograph the drought through the eyes of Central Valley farmers.
On my first visit, there was an immediate and overwhelming sense of disorientation. The complexities and layers interconnecting farming, water systems, and California governance will make your head spin.
While working on this project I occupied a guest room belonging to Kim and Nick Rocca. Kim is an event planner. Nick farms grapes. Nearby are Nick’s parents, Christy and Randy. Randy also farms grapes. In between their respective homes is the house Nick’s great-grandfather purchased in 1932. Feelings of heritage and legacy run broad and deep.
The Rocca’s have welcomed me with open arms. Their grace is a catalyst for what I’m able to do, see, photograph. I’ve spent much time with Nick, shadowing him as he works his day. I’ve shared the dinner table with the whole family, learning about who they are. I’ve been introduced to other families who farm, dairy, or dig water wells. The common thread among all is an indefatigable pride in the work they do.
Grapes are pulled to set to dry between rows.
Nick and Randy Rocca
Tractors pull harvesters behind them and fill enormous bins with grapes. A steady hum of machinery races against the dark.
Almonds in bloom in the Spring. Those same trees harvested by an almond shaker - which does exactly as you expect, with such a force your feet move beneath you.
California almonds require over a trillion gallons of water per year and represent 80% of the world supply.
A well pumps water from the aquifer below. Wells can push 1,000 feet down, digging and maintaining these systems can costs hundreds of thousands.
DeGroot Dairy in Fresno. Livestock require water for consumption and hygiene. A cow's udder must remain clean to produce usable milk. A mix of fresh and grey water are used to maintain the animals. Water management, I learned, is but one of about a thousand things a rancher must worry about day-to-day.
Persimmons sorted and packed.
Foodlink and Nutrition on Wheels are two organizations providing groceries for those in need. During drought, lack of water means fewer crops to be maintained and harvested which means fewer jobs.