Everyone knows about the California Gold Rush – the massive migration of fortune seekers to the hills of the former Spanish colony in the 1840s and 1850s.
During the same period, however, there was another rush to California with a more lasting effect – farmers seeking fertile land and a mild climate, such as the ill-fated Donner Party.
Many who came for the gold also learned that more durable fortunes were to be found in farming, such as my cousin, Hugh Glenn, the “wheat king of California” for whom Glenn County is named.
The 19th-century wheat boom, however, didn’t last and agriculture has undergone repeated evolution since.
As irrigation water became available in the early 20th century, wheat gave way to rice and a cotton boom that reached a peak a half-century ago only to decline like wheat.
Refrigerated rail cars carried California’s peaches and other tree fruits to the nation for decades – and generated memorable fruit crate art – but production dropped sharply as cheap air freight supplied fresh fruit from other countries year-round.
Milk is today’s top agricultural product at around $10 billion, followed by almonds, grapes, cattle and strawberries. The state’s agricultural production, as of 2014, was $54 billion, up 69 percent from a decade earlier. That said, even with the ancillary activities, such as machinery sales, agriculture is a relatively tiny piece of the state’s $2.5 trillion economy.
This brief history of farming in California is to place in context Monday’s approval of a contentious bill giving farmworkers overtime pay parity with other employees.
It, along with raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and chronic shortages of irrigation water, are among today’s factors driving the industry’s evolution.
The shift from seasonal row crops such as lettuce and melons to dairy and other high-value commodities reflects changes in global markets. But they also demand intensive labor input and reliable water because livestock, almond orchards and vineyards cannot be left untended or unwatered.
Raising agricultural labor costs via changes in the minimum wage and overtime rules will have an impact, particularly since farmers, unlike most other employers, are subject to global commodity markets and cannot simply raise their prices to cover their costs.
Some low-value crops will become economic losers, declining here and shifting to lower-cost regions such as Mexico or Arizona. High-value crops particularly suited to California’s soil and weather, such a wine grapes, will survive.
Dairying may be vulnerable, since it’s not dependent on unique California conditions and its odoriferous nature makes it an unwelcome neighbor. If it declines, feed crops such as hay – and even wheat – could also fade.
The uncertain availability of water also will play a major role in what happens to California agriculture, particularly crops requiring large amounts, such as rice, hay and almonds.
California agriculture has always evolved, but with recent events it appears to be on the verge of particularly deep changes.