Monday, March 21, 2011
Dad, What's A Peach?
At the foot of the pass, as it connects to the valley floor, there were many farms and orchards, and we loved to hit a few of the fruit stands on the way home and stock up on peaches and nectarines, during the summer.
On this one day, as we pulled into one of the first stands, a load of Japanese tourists had just unloaded from a small tour bus and were excitedly running among the trees, pointing and jabbering at the exquisite boughs of vermillion nectarines teeming on the branches.
At first, it stuck us as funny, odd. After all, this was just another old orchard giving its bounty for summer. I had seen hundreds growing up in the San Joaquin valley of California. I had even picked some of these fruits as a kid.
Years before, living in Modesto when my wife and I first married, we rented a small house in the barrio that once belonged to my uncles, The Mendozas. Two orange trees grew in the front yard, which we largely ignored.
One day, my old high school buddy, Phil came to visit us from Berkeley and brought his girlfriend and her friend, who both hailed from New York City. I had never met anybody from New York City and the barrio must have been an adventure for them. As they stepped from the car, his girlfriend's eyes immediately darted to the orange trees and she rushed towards one crying "Look, look, oh look oranges!!" She had never seen an orange growing on a tree.
My mom's house down the street stood in front of a small orchard. As kids, we took full advantage of this. Though only the size of about four square blocks, it held walnuts, figs, apricots, grapes, peaches and a few nectarine trees in it. We quickly learned when each would ripen and carried on clandestine raids into the orchard to taste its delicious delicacies, braving the ire of the rancher who chased us out many a time.
As a teen, I worked summers picking various crops in the valley. Unloading with the men from the back of a truck, it was still dark outside as we scurried to to our assigned sets of trees or rows of grapes. Sunrise in the fields was exquisite, the sparkle of dew drops as sun light hit them, the cool of summer mornings just before the heat began, nibbling on ripe apricots or peaches on a 12 foot ladder was intoxicating. You could smell the fruit being processed at the canneries in Modesto.
I had always enjoyed drives through the valley in spring and summer. Fields of almonds in bloom, and trees full of apricots and peaces were commonplace. When my wife, a native of Mexico first saw the orchards and fields, she was mesmerized.
I used to grill her on the names of fruit trees and it took her a few years to identify them just by their trunks and leaves. "What kind of tree is that?" "A Peach?" "No, it;s a cherry!" "What kind is that?" "A cherry?" "No, a peach!" I knew them all and took it for granted. Now, after 40+ years living in the valley, she knows them all, even without their leaves.
I left Modesto in 1957 when I went off to college in Oakland. After college, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 3 more years from 1962-1965, away from the valley. One of the first things I noticed when I returned to Modesto was how many orchards had been torn down. In their place were parking lots, shopping centers and housing projects. To this day, I can recall exactly where a particular peach, walnut, or almond orchard or vineyard once stood.
On the drive from Modesto to Stockton where we now live, orchard after orchard has been leveled and I wonder what the fate of the remaining orchards is. Here in stockton, farmland has disappeared at an alarming rate. In what are now houses, Walmarts, and housing projects lie the remains of what were once tomato, cherry, almond or walnut fields plowed under. Tiny island orchards cling to life, but for how long?
Farmers' Markets still thrive locally and I love to frequent them to taste the rich familiar flavors of locally grown, fresh tomatoes, peaches, apricots, grapes, and pears in summer.
Yet, our appetite for farmland continues to grow. The fruit from backyard fruit trees feeds mostly the birds, or is left to fall to rot on the ground. According to Molly Penbreth from the California Department of Conservation, from 2002-2004 "More than 18,000 acres of farmland in several San Joaquin valley counties has become subdivisions, shopping malls and other developments."
The population of California is projected to double to 60 million by 2050, with much of that growth taking place in the central valley. Aside from the fact that for me the loss is mostly aesthetic, Califonia's agriculture feeds a great chunk of the world, and is a multi-billion dollar business.
What will we do when our children ask, "Mom, what is a peach?" And all we can do is show them a picture?