The Orchard, mixed media – watercolor, pen and pencil – on paper by Stephanie Taylor

California Sketches: Almond orchard is sacrificed in cycle of life on family farm

Published: Sunday, May. 15, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 2E
Last Modified: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 - 5:10 pm

On a farm near Winters, an almond orchard lies in destruction. Fragments of branches and tree trunks are piled up like gravestones in a cemetery – a monument to each tree. In the midst of the field stand a farmworker and a backhoe.

The sight of the decimated field is disturbing. Or maybe I am ashamed that I understand so little about the cycle of agriculture in the Sacramento Valley.

Past the orchard is a farmhouse and garages full of equipment. Nearby are other orchards, each in different stages of maturity – some young, some old, but all with the bare branches of winter reaching to the promise of warmer skies in spring. Two-toned trunks are set in neat rows – a familiar sight for those who pass through the Valley.

I interrupt the farmworker, a tiny tree in one hand, to learn more about the orchard that has been cut down. He calls the owner for me.

Gloria Lopez is a third-generation farmer. She grew up on this land, working beside her family from age 6. She remembers her father planning this orchard in the early 1960s, grafting each almond start to a peach tree root stock for stability. With admiration and love, she described her father as an innovator, architect, engineer and a farmer who managed his property astutely. And this was the last remaining orchard Sebastian Lopez had planted.

Sebastian Lopez was the son of Spanish immigrants who, along with 8,000 others, left Andalusia as peasants in 1907, having been promised work on Hawaiian pineapple plantations. Promises unfilled, his family left Hawaii for San Francisco, and after the 1906 quake, settled in Winters, drawn to the Mediterranean climate.

Working as field laborers, they saved and saved, and as the Depression hit, bought land. They worked hard, farming apricots, peaches and almonds.

Gloria Lopez, and her husband, Mike, joined her parents on the farm. In its prime, this 20-acre orchard yielded 40,000 pounds of almonds a year. Over time production declined to 6,000 pounds. And four months ago, Sebastian Lopez passed gently at age 89.

The piles of almond trees will be sold as firewood. Thirteen hundred walnut trees are planned for the now-vacant 20 acres. Walnuts offer a higher yielding, more stable crop.

For now, those stacked monuments stand as a testament to Gloria's father and three generations. The walnut orchard will renew the cycle of agriculture in the Valley, but Gloria Lopez wonders if her family farm will survive for another generation.

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