When most people drive through central California on Interstate 5, their memories are not fond. The highway is as straight as a stretched string and passes mostly through a landscape so flat that any little rise in the road or shift of lanes is a reason to look up from one's book or knitting. Only an artist as talented as Thiebaud could make you look twice at this landscape.
Drivers complain of drowsiness in the sameness of the terrain and vow never to drive that way again. Mothers plan car games for young children to keep them from becoming bored and fretful. The first time My Beloved took me on that highway, he was apologizing for the landscape before we ever got to the freeway, certain that he would have a bored and cranky woman on his hands in short order.
I was fascinated. I loved it from the very first. With the velvety, undulating coast hills on the right - as green as Ireland in the winter and richly golden in the summer - and the most amazingly vast quilt of farms on the left, it is tailor-made for someone who is fascinated by farming.
When I lived in western New York, I learned to appreciate farming. Having been at one time an enormous swamp, the land around Rochester was drained to make the most wonderfully fertile farms you can imagine. Between mid-June and the end of October, the entire area is an amazing cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, each more flavorful and more beautiful than the next. When I first moved there, I would visit the farm stands that lined nearly every country road and, having spent no more than five dollars, take home more groceries than I could comfortably carry in two arms. During the harvest, enormous trucks filled to overflowing with peas, or tomatoes, or onions would rumble along the roads, headed for the canning or freezing factories and shedding ripe produce along the way.
The San Joaquin Valley, through which I-5 travels, makes western New York look puny by comparison. The farms are much larger and the crops far more various. The valley is more than 400 miles long and 50 miles wide. If you can't grow it in this valley, it must be tropical; everything else thrives. Fruit and nut orchards are vast monocultures, as are the fields of cotton, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes - well, I could pretty much name any crop and you'd find it out in that amazing valley.
Now, I do realize the issues inherent in that scale of farming - the use of pesticides and petroleum products, the concern about crop diseases and insects, the disputes over water rights and land use - and I think about those issues as I drive down the valley, but none of it spoils for me the interest of witnessing the tilling, the planting, the pruning, the harvesting, and of trying to guess from the shape of a tree or the color of a plant what the crop might be.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe about this trip - how come the farmers don't post signs to tell us a little about the crops? I'd love to know more about each field - why was it chosen for plums instead of peaches or grapes? How long has this farmer been working this land? How long has the land been in the family? What the heck is that crop? How much water does it take to raise a head of broccoli or a bushel of almonds or a head of cattle? Not only would it make driving back and forth to Los Angeles more interesting, I think if they provided us with more information, we'd have more sympathy for the hard and worrisome work they put into producing our food.
Anyway, I have coined a phrase for people like me, city people who know little about farming but love it anyway and enjoy sightseeing in farm country - agri-nerds. I'm an agri-nerd, and proud of it.