“We don’t know many people anymore, do we?” a friend said as we sat on his breezeway bench for our daily tablespoon of conversation. He said it surprised, as if it hadn’t occurred to him before, though our ring of acquaintances has been shrinking for years. “No,” I said, “we don’t.”
Partly that’s due to our ages: seven decades are behind us, and some of our closest friends have already crossed over Jordan. Others have moved on, both geographically and vocationally, part of the ongoing exodus of small farmers removing themselves from this land. But you never hear about it until later, when you realize you haven’t seen someone in awhile and think to ask somebody who might know. Then there are fewer to ask.
It’s an old pattern. My friend is one of the youngsters of an orange-growing family who moved here in the 1950s, having cashed out their land for LA Basin subdivisions. Those exiles became a close community in Lindsay and Exeter, adding their financial resources and urban-encultured expectations to the very decent small-farm mix of families who’d come before them to plant orange and olive groves. Both towns grew.
That ’50s crowd came already conditioned for the cooperative form of fruit packing and marketing that was here. Lindsay Olive and Sunkist, both producer cooperatives, provided a more egalitarian structure than most areas of the valley. But the olive plant closed in the late ‘80s after massive plantings of olives on the west side (which doubled the state total olive acreage) came into production and crashed the market. In that same decade Sunkist took on a more corporate (“top-down”) character, while Dole, Paramount and Sun Pacific cut huge chunks from Sunkist’s market share. The demise of the co-ops can be blamed in part for the demise of the smaller family farmers here and the increase in large-scale, absentee landownership.
I have written recently about the impact of large, absentee landholdings on the economic viability, community infrastructure and social life of the small towns we inhabit. But I had not thought about the personal impact—the loneliness—until my friend spoke it out loud.
Later it occurred to me that what has changed is not so much the people we live among as the disappearance of our ways of getting to know them. People naturally come together when they share occupational experiences: around here, stories about starting wind machines during cold weather are topped only by stories of starting smudge pots. Questionable packouts, bad years when the baby fruit dropped in May or blossoms that got battered in a storm, the singing sounds of workers picking the crop, the hurried forklifts stacking bins…these events, which farmers experience mostly alone, become membership certificates when shared as stories at packinghouse meetings, over coffee after church, on the side of the road. These are ways we knew each other. Now the neighbors have left, the packinghouses are closed and the churches are almost gone. There is little to affiliate the small grower—the few that are left—with their town.
There’s a man I know from having been a cashier at RN Market. I don’t know his name or speak his native language, but I sensed his kindness while ringing up his groceries and we became smiling partners. He lives near the city limits and grows the most incredible garden on half his town lot. Now I wave when I see him out working in it as I drive by to visit my orange grower friends. Last summer he had boxes of vegetables lined up on his opened tailgate, and though I don’t remember whether he’d marked a price or simply “gratis,” the abundance produced by his hands and land confirmed what I already knew. He’s a farmer with a tiny piece of some of Lindsay’s best land—Lewis Creek alluvium—and he knows what to do with it.
You’ll see signs of other such farmers living in town even on the heavier soil, gardens cramped into tiny strips of yard, food growing between sidewalk and curb. The urge to farm may be as strong as the urge to eat. These farmers are not nobodies; we just have no way to get to know them.
What if we found some new way to get acquainted?