Salinas Valley is America’s salad bowl

For family reason I recently spent a short time in California’s Salinas Valley, it was a great experience for two reasons.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 23rd August 2012, 10:40 am

One was that I’m a fan of John Steinbeck, author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘East of Eden’, ‘Of Mice And Men’ and ‘Cannery Row’ among many others. The Salinas Valley is where he grew up and the background to many of his books, notably “The Grapes of Wrath”.

That dealt with the impoverished, small-farm families displaced and dispossessed by the 1930s dust bowl depression that devastated the American mid-West.

With little more than the clothes they wore and dilapidated trucks liable to frequent punctures and breakdowns and barley enough money to buy petrol, families from the mid-West headed over the mountains for a California that seemed like the promised land.

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Once there they found themselves as looked on and treated as virtual slave labour by the fruit and vegetable growers of the lush west coast, such as those in the Salinas Valley.

Knowing that what had become a captive labour force – no money, little food, nowhere to live, nowhere else to go – was desperate for any kind of income, the growers forced wages down and down for casual labour for jobs such as picking peaches.

It’s one of life’s recurring mysteries, at least to me, that employers making profits try to make even more squeezing their labour force, instead of giving them a fair deal and establishing a reasonable relationship instead of accumulating bitterness and grievances.

Usually and eventually the pendulum swings the other way and labour gets the chance to squeeze the bosses, such as the anarchic British car industry of 30 years or so ago or London tube drivers before the recent Olympics.

But organised and/or successful revolt by farm workers, especially seasonal and casual, has seldom happened. Steainbeck detailed why in several of his books and short stories, making himself so unpopular with fruit and vegetable growers by pinning the blame squarely on them that he left California to live in New York.

That was a long time ago and the workers being squeezed were white, dirt-poor, Americans.

Today the Salinas Valley is described as America’s salad bowl and anyone who has visited the US knows what that means in a country where food is an obsession of two extremes.

One is the burger, hot dog, waffles and maple syrup and crispy bacon culture that produces the huge, waddling Americans seen on many a TV screen. The counter to that is the fitness freaks, jogging and huge fresh food supermarkets such as Wholefoods, much of it fair trade and organic, where the choice of home-grown fruit and vegetables is astonishing.

Many, stacked in pyramids three feet high, come from the tens of thousands of valley bottom acres in the Salinas Valley, mile after mile of green salad crops grown in a climate that can produce crop after crop all year round.

Not far away there is Gilroy “garlic capital of the world”, according to its residents, and that isn’t far from Castroville “artichoke capital of the world.” Right along much of the Californian coast strawberries, peaches, cherries, vines, apples, tomatoes and much more are grown. Many, even there, are now under plastic to produce even bigger crops with fewer problems.

It’s a magnificent example of top quality farm management, marketing and distribution. And the labour force it is based on? Not too far removed from Steinbeck’s grapes of wrath – mainly Mexican and Hispanic migrants, many illegal, living in poor quality accommodation and paid low wages on the same “squeeze them hard, plenty more willing to do the job if they won’t” mentality faced by Steinbeck’s Joad family 80 years ago.

Apart from the homeless and destitute found in most American cities, as in London and Edinurgh, migrant workers in America’s most fertile and productive fields are probably the lowest run of the capitalist economy. An underclass certainly helps profits.

It’s ironic that the Salinas Valley was looking so green, with many irrigation systems at full bore, while vast areas of the US suffer the worst drought for more than half a century with temperatures in the high 90s for much of July and August. The average, night and day, was 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit, eclipsing the record set in the Dust Bowl states in 1936.

The effect that has had on US crop estimates and prices has been reflected on world markets and on British crop prices where a late-ish harvest is now under way.

Earlier this year the US department of agriculture was forecasting a bumper grain and soya harvest after farmers had sown their biggest acreage in 75 years.

Drought and heat mean that even with that big acreage, total yield will be well below the average of the past two decades.

The slump in yield has also caused consternation about the ethanol industry, where the US government requirement is for oil companies to blend more than 13 billions gallons of ethanol – extracted from corn – into fuel for vehicles.

Senators from the farming states say that ethanol extraction in a year of low yields has forced up prices for feed for livestock and poultry. It all sounded familiar.

Meantime a touch of US high temperatures and consistent dry weather would help our own harvest. But not too high.