Rising from the remnants of what was once a vast inland sea, California’s Central Valley is an agricultural empire unparalleled in the history of the world. Covering an area larger than ten US states, it is home to America’s richest farms and generates close to $20 billion dollars’ worth of fresh food each year, nearly half of the US supply.
Though this wealth comes from the earth, there is little natural about how it is produced: the Central Valley is a place not so much rural as it is empty-urban — a thoroughly industrialized farm landscape whose once undulating plains have been tractored into table-top flatness, whose streams have been dammed and whose lakes have been drained. Some farms have become so automated that the tractors are piloted by satellite, and some plots are so vast and monotonous that thousands of pollinating bees die each year because they can’t find their way back to their hives. So much water has been pumped from the aquifers that in places the ground has dropped by fifty feet. Most tellingly, the fields are planted, tended and harvested by migrants brought in by the busload: few make more than $10,000 per year, eight out of ten are undocumented, and hardly any know the names of the farmers in whose fields they work.
From the roots of this unnatural wealth has sprung a dysfunctional society, communities whose chronically high unemployment and generational poverty have fostered social ills more commonly associated with big cities. In tiny towns surrounded by farm fields, drug and alcohol addiction is rampant, teenage pregnancies are among the highest in the nation, crime and gangs are commonplace.Much is revealed by how a society raises its food — the one thing people both pay for and pray over — and the Central Valley tells us much about modern life. A modern rural distopia, it is a landscape at once rich but impoverished, industrialized but rural, inhabited but unsettled: a kingdom, but one made of dust, nourishing millions as it consumes itself. Matt Black.