On a summer morning last year, I drove from Yuba City to Dixon. I drove State Highway 113 north of Woodland – went through Robbins and Knights Landing. While I’m normally a foothills/mountains kind of guy, I realized how much I love this part of the Sacramento Valley. Since I was driving by myself, I had plenty of time to contemplate as to why this was.
The crops that grow in this part of the valley are incredible, both in variety and in quantity. Between Yuba City and Woodland, I saw sunflowers, prunes (or dried plums, I guess), walnuts, canning tomatoes, field corn, almonds, rice, beans, melons, and alfalfa – and I’m sure I’m missing a few crops. For a foothill rancher who is used to 18 inches of topsoil being a luxury, the productivity of these valley soils was humbling!
But the diversity of crops wasn’t the only thing that made this part of the valley attractive. As I drove south, I realized that it was the trees – both native and agricultural – that gave the landscape its beauty. Every road, slough and river was lined with trees, mostly valley oaks and black walnuts. The trees marked field boundaries, too – there were even some in the midst of farm fields. Some were natural, others were obviously planted – some were old enough to have been planted by the original European settlers in this part of the world.
One thing I didn’t see, however, were young trees. Virtually all of the oaks and walnuts I saw were huge “grandfather” trees – 3 feet or more in diameter at the trunk. Most were healthy, but some were decadent and decaying – slowly dying from mistletoe infestations or other diseases. I also saw stumps; remnants of trees that had once shaded the road. There were no saplings – no young trees to replace those that had been lost.
Driving by oneself (at least if one is a farmer) can make one philosophical. I started thinking about the men and women who planted these trees. They were probably, almost certainly, farmers. They were also probably long departed. No one (myself included) takes time to plant trees for the sake of shading roadways or field margins today. Shade was critical when farming was done by hand and by horse; with mechanization, shade isn’t quite so important.
I also found parallels between the state of these valley trees and the state of farming in my part of the world. As someone in my extreme middle forties (I’ll be 48 next month), believe it or not, I’m younger than the average farmer. In Placer County where I ranch, for example, two-thirds of our farmers are 65 years or older. The next 10-15 years are frighteningly critical to the future of our local farming community. There are many reasons that young people aren’t farming – just as there are many reasons that there are no young trees along the roadways in northern Yolo County. As I drove, I found myself asking, “Who will plant new trees?” As I write this, I find myself asking, “Who will nurture new farmers?”