Today, the New York Times Magazine dropped a monster of a piece in which Mark Bittman travels to California’s Central Valley and observes a range of farming operations, from the huge to the miniscule. He visits Bolthouse Farms near Bakersfield, which produces some 85 percent of the carrots eaten in the U.S., and he’s astounded by the vastness of it all. The Central Valley is not only one of the nation’s centers of industrial farming — it produces a third of the produce we eat, and unlike the Midwest, there’s much more variety beyond corn and soybeans — but it’s also one of the world’s biggest testing grounds of the unsustainability of modern farming practices, and Bittman was there, in part, to ask how long this can all go on. Also, he points out, “The food that’s grown in the valley may be copious, but it’s not necessarily all that good.”
He visits a vast almond grove and a four-acre plot being farmed by a Hmong immigrant named May Vu in Fresno. He also goes to a major organic farm run by Tom and Denesse Willey in Madera. Their T&D; Willey Farms has long been a supplier for Chez Panisse, and they’ve managed to stay completely organic, farming 40 crops on 75 acres, kind of against the odds.
But more interestingly, Bittman finishes with a visit to Tom Willey’s friend Paul Buxman, who became an organic farmer 30 years ago after chemical contamination on his family’s land led to his son getting leukemia at age three.
Buxman became disillusioned, however, with trying to farm to the letter of organic law, saying “an organic pesticide is still poisonous” and finding that nonorganic chemicals can target problems more precisely and more accurately than organic ones. He and Willey argue frequently about this, but Bittman, ever the pragmatist, sees some wisdom in Buxman’s methods of “splitting the difference between ‘organic’ and ‘conventional.’” It may, in fact, be the future of farm policy in a region where there is virtually none and which desperately needs some sort of compromise if we don’t want the Fruit Basket of the World to turn into a fallow, contaminated dust bowl.