Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A walk in dairyland

A ditch runs through it

As usual, the Christmas holiday found me back where I was born and raised—the dairy country in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley. My brother runs the family dairy now, milking about 800 head of Holstein. That does not, by the way, make his dairy particularly large relative to the other dairies in the region.

On Christmas morning, I woke up in the home my parents have lived in for all of their married lives (over fifty years). After a sketchy breakfast (reserving my appetite for the mid-day Christmas dinner), I went for a stroll across my brother's dairy farm. My path paralleled the irrigation canal that provides the farm's southern boundary. The central valley would be a desert if not for the web of waterways that permits farmers to irrigate their crops. The canals vary in size, of course, but the one next to my brother's dairy is typical. Its cross-section is trapezoidal, perhaps 20 feet wide across the top and about 10 feet deep. That's the distance from the bottom of the canal to the top of the bank; the actual water depth is about six feet. There was no water flowing in the canal on Christmas Day, but the water had etched the dirt banks to mark its passage. Recent flows had apparently varied between four and six feet.

Roughly judging the dimensions of the water's cross-sectional trapezoid when the depth was six feet, I estimated that the cross-sectional area was 48 ft2. Ignoring little details like the gradually diminishing height of the water as one goes down the canal, I figured that one mile of canal would hold about 250,000 ft3. What is that in gallons? I don't know, but I could probably figure it out. However, farmers don't use gallons—unless the government makes them.

Farmers use acre-feet. An acre-foot is the volume of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. (Of course, it helps if you know what an acre is.) I remember my father and brother snorting in contempt one time when scanning a government form they were required to fill out. Some poor state bureaucrat wanted irrigation data reported in gallons. (There are lots of former farm kids out there. You'd think a state agency dealing with agriculture would hire enough of them to be competent in farm parlance. But I guess not.)

By the way, do you know what an acre is? I have always found it simplest to remember that there are 640 acres to the square mile. To me, this is a better memory device than the rule that an acre is a rectangle one furlong in length and four rods wide. However, you may have noticed that 640 is not a perfect square, so it would be impossible to partition a square mile into 640 perfectly square acres. If we instead use 40 acres as our preferred measure, then we see that a square mile can very nicely be chopped up into sixteen 40-acre parcels. Indeed, this is commonly done, which is why ranches and farms are often conglomerations of 40-acre tracts. Then you'll hear people refer to the "north forty" or something like that by way of identifying a field.

If you're not accustomed to thinking in terms of square miles and acres, perhaps a different comparison would be helpful. The website Cockeyed.com offers many ways to look at an acre. Most people will probably find the comparison to a football field the easiest to grasp. The alternative is to crunch some numbers: A square mile is (5,280 ft)2. If we divide this by 640, we find that an acre is 43,560 ft2. If we divide the volume of water in one mile of the irrigation canal by the square-footage of an acre, we end up with about 5.8 acre-feet. That's a lot of gallons.

Go-it-alone dependency

I have been reading Arax & Wartzman's biography of J. G. Boswell, The King of California. The Boswell family was and is a key player in the development of central California agriculture. One of the great paradoxes at the center of the enterprise is the pairing of rugged individualism with huge government subsidies.

Some of the huge components of California's water control system, like the Pine Flat Dam, involved the expenditures of enormous amounts of personal capital as farming enterprises invested in the future of irrigation, but most of the state's water transportion system is a gigantic public works project. The bottom line is that the government is the indispensable facilitator of the farmer's occupation, even as the farmer typically resents what he often sees as the government's unwarranted intervention in his personal affairs. In theory, at least, federally subsidized irrigation water was supposed to go to modest family farms with at most 160 acres. In practice, the 160-acre limit was routinely flouted or circumvented by pretending to partition large tracts into parcels under the limit. The battle over the limit went on for decades before the large farming operations finally won de jure the struggle they had long been winning de facto.

It is easy to be misunderstood when one points out that government intervention helps to keep California farming a viable proposition, at least on the scale at which it is currently practiced. The inattentive will assume that farming is therefore a cushy occupation, a kind of socialist worker's paradise. That would ignore the intensely hard work of farming and the game of chance and skill that farmers play with Mother Nature each year. The hours are long and the work is hard. As a farm boy, I had it relatively easy because of a brother and cousins who were eager to plunge into the agricultural life. But I know from personal witness (and occasional reluctant involvement) that it is a strenuous existence.

What we have here are self-made men who work within a government-built world. Neither could have done it without the other. The weird amalgam of public works and private effort has been astonishingly productive. Can it be sustained? I rather doubt it. The small family farm is already extinct in the San Joaquin. My brother is operating a dairy farm approximately four times as large as the one our grandfather reigned over. Yet in my grandfather's day the dairy farm provided more than adequate support for three families and paid out wages to employees from four other families (to the best of my recollection). Today the much larger operation supports a significantly smaller number of people.

Farm survival is based on growth. Growth of both crops and size, the crops for cash and the size for economies of scale. Will the trend keep going until the central valley contains only one huge farm? As unthinkable as that is, no one can currently see the next plateau where family farms can be both stable and successful. The fifth generation of our farm family arrived early last year. Will he and his siblings be our last farm generation?

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