Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”
Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”
The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Heraclio Astete, who shared his story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.
Occupation: Former sheepherder
Born in: Junín, Peru
Interviewed in: Bakersfield, Kern County
Agricultural Region: Central Valley
Along with fruit and vegetable crops, California’s agriculture also includes livestock, from dairy cows and egg-laying hens to hogs and even ostriches. Then there are sheep and lambs—and the unique challenges faced by the workers who care for them. These sheepherders are predominantly temporary guest workers, often called “H-2A workers” after the type of visa they hold.
Theirs is a lonely occupation. Living out of primitive trailers that are dozens of miles from the nearest town, sheepherders can go weeks without seeing another face. It is also the poorest paid job in the country, with some sheepherders still earning around $750 a month; with their long hours of work, that amounts to about a dollar an hour. In a 2000 report by Central California Legal Services, ninety percent of sheepherders reported that they weren’t given a day off over the entire year. When asked about their best experience as a sheepherder in the United States, many responded: “None.”
Like many sheepherders, Heraclio Astete came from Peru, where he grew up caring for flocks of sheep in his hometown. And like many of the workers who responded “None” to the survey, he had a lot of complaints about workplace exploitation. When he suffered a potentially life threatening work-related illness, he decided to do something about it.Read more…
Harris is an idealist, the kind of all-natural farmer whose cows finish on grass, whose birds run free, whose goats and sheep transform overgrown land. His faith in biodiverse, sustainable methods has only been affirmed by his multimillion-dollar annual revenues. And not that he would, but shooting a bald eagle is punishable by a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. Whatever was to be done about the eagles, Harris’s farm would work with nature, not fight against it. But as he would discover, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Now, you know John Muir said: In nature, when you pull a string, you see that everything’s connected?” Harris lamented to me later. “This is a good example of that.”
What happens when your chickens are killed by predators protected by law? At The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Williams reports on the farming hardships posed by bald eagles and what one family farm in Bluffon, Georgia, is trying to do about it.
Mr Ingold wrote about the importance of the word talo. Roughly translated, it means house. But it also has a deeper meaning. When Finnish herders are raised in a talo, it is not simply that they grow up in one place. “A house,” explains Mr Ingold, “is a total establishment, an organic unity of place and people, cumulatively built up through the work of generations.” It is not something that can be shaken off. When Aarne says that herders are “born” to do it he is not being flippant. Like his father, he feels he had little choice. Nor does he regret that. Raisa explains that “this is what we want to do. There’s a richness to this wild way of life.”
That remains true even as threats from climate change, logging and other signs of expanding human footprints impinge on their vast emptiness. But throughout the centuries herders have adapted to changes wrought from outside. They have embraced GPS tracking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and drones.
Our truck pulls away, and I watch the sloped farm in the rearview mirror, all yellow and green in the new sun. The mid-morning scene vanishes in a silver chrome flash, and soon, Josh and I are back in the land of traffic lights and brick buildings. Too soon I am back on an airplane, pulling away from these mountains, headed home, where I unzip my suitcase and dump the entire contents into the laundry. Only later—days later, in the odd indoors light—do I notice the sprinkle of dirt I have dropped in the hall. Old dirt . . . the old dirt from Mr. Neal Woody’s farm, now blessing my carpet, tickling my naked toes in the dead of night, shading my dogs’ paws, filling up an inch of my vacuum someday, when I decide it’s time. But for now, old dirt is the best souvenir, for I have North Carolina in my rugs — the farms and flowers and sweet-smelling pines, Josh and Neal, and the misty indigo sunrise. None of that ever goes away. Even now, months later, I can lift the coffee cup to my lip and feel it in my hands, the dirt-brown mug that Josh made — a veritable piece of the Appalachian Mountains, rough as rock and sturdy as stone.
We’ve domesticated dogs, chickens, pigs and countless plants. Now we’re doing the same to wild fish. In the science magazine Nautilus, Matthew Berger writes about how cultivation is not only changing the salmon genetically, but about what cultivation means to the idea of salmon, and to humanity’s relationship with nature. Exploring evolution and the history of salmon aquaculture, Berger asks: when does this domesticated crop no longer resemble its wild ancestor, and does it matter?
But salmon have changed, and that change has been more than genetic or morphological or geographic; it’s been a change in vocabulary and perception. Domestication has created a kind of relativity, undermining what makes a salmon a salmon. This generation’s grandkids will probably know salmon as that plentiful fish raised in pens, not as a creature that has evolved to migrate thousands of miles through freshwater, saltwater, over waterfalls, and around dams.
Gross sees domesticated salmon as “a continuation of human agricultural development that began 10,000 years ago.” Today, that agricultural enterprise is touching new species and leaving its mark on not just animals in pens but the ones that remain, to whatever degree, “wild.”
In the California Sunday Magazine, Tessa Stuart writes the gripping story of a criminal who worked the people who work the fields in California’s rural interior, and the detective agency who raced to catch him. The story has all the markings of a Netflix original series, except in place of drugs or gold, the loot is cattle and farmers’ money.
The last deal they did together was far and away the biggest — to the tune of about $450,000. Arno bought 185 head of cattle and wrote Jamie a check for the total. But instead of taking them to his cattlemen clients, Arno drove down to the Tulare County Stockyards and put the cows up at the public auction, where they fetched a price that was $300 less per head than the check he’d written Jamie. It bounced.
Jamie, Rocky eventually learned, wasn’t the first or last dairyman Arno scammed. Arno was buying cows from different cattlemen, taking the money he made at the auction and using it to buy more, or accepting payment for a certain number of cows from a farmer and delivering only a fraction of those promised. “It was a giant Ponzi scheme,” Rocky says. “These guys would start calling him, ‘Hey, dude, where’s the rest of my cows?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, they’re coming. The truck broke down in Texas or New Mexico or … ’ He’d come up with some cock-and-bull story.”
Rocky found that even as Arno was failing to deliver the dairymen’s cows, he was flying the same dairymen around in private planes on trips up to Oregon or over to Las Vegas on a lark, with fuel and piloting services he also hadn’t paid for. At the time, the dairymen weren’t talking about Arno among themselves; the fear was that if they exposed Arno’s fraud to one dairyman, Arno wouldn’t be able to extract money from that person to pay back the others.
Although it felt better to raise cattle that weren’t drugged up, economically it was hard to rationalize the decision. Sales barns in the Midwest feed into the industrial agricultural system and make no distinction between grass-fed beef and doped up beef. A farmer just pulls his trailer up to the sales barn, drops the cattle off, and the buyers—huge conglomerates like Hormel, Tyson Foods, or Swift—establish the price for that day. Farmers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Many opted to cut back on hormones and make up the extra cash in town working a full time job.
The key to sustaining an organic, traditional farming operation is to link the small farms of the Driftless with nearby big city markets. Jamie’s man on the ground in cities of the Midwest is Todd Moore, a veteran of Chicago’s punk-rock kitchens and Milwaukee’s best French restaurants. He runs sales and operations for Jefferson Twp., which means he is in a lot of restaurants, speaking with a lot of chefs, passing out a lot of sample slabs of grass-fed beef and pork.
—Sascha Matuszak, writing in Roads & Kingdoms about the distinct geological, agricultural and socio-political identity of the Driftless, a four-state region within the American Midwest that was not scoured by glaciers, and where small-scale farming thrives.
Modern Farmer appeared in the spring of 2013. After three issues, it won a National Magazine Award; no other magazine had ever won so quickly. According to Gardner, though, Modern Farmer is less a magazine than an emblem of “an international life-style brand.” This is the life style of people who want to “eat food with a better backstory”—from slaughterhouses that follow humane practices, and from farmers who farm clean and treat their workers decently. Also, food cultists who like obscure foods and believe that fruits and vegetables taste different depending on where they are grown. Also, aspirational farmers, hobby farmers, intern farmers, student farmers, WWOOFers—people who take part in programs sponsored by the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms movement—and people who stay at hotels on farms where they eat things grown by the owners. Plus idlers in cubicles searching for cheap farmland and chicken fences and what kind of goats give the best milk. Such people “have a foot in each world, rural and urban,” Gardner says. She calls them Rurbanistas, a term she started using after hearing the Spanish word rurbanismo, which describes the migration from the city to the countryside. Rurbanistas typify the Modern Farmer audience.
The global almond boom is being fueled in part by sleek marketing campaigns that have made almonds the nut of choice for consumers. Subway stations in China are blanketed with billboards proclaiming almonds to be a heart-healthy snack that makes people “perpetually feel good” (almond exports to China have more than doubled in the past five years). In Korea, California almonds have been integrated into the storyline of a popular prime-time television show. And in Europe, French and British TV personalities have lauded almonds as a healthy alternative to processed foods.
In the United States, almonds have become a staple for many health-conscious consumers. In its raw form, the “power food” is said to lower cholesterol, spur weight loss, and provide powerful antioxidants such as Vitamin E and manganese. Products like almond butter and almond milk have also become increasingly popular in health food stores.
But growing almonds in an arid climate requires lots of water. In fact, Westlands’ almond orchards suck up nearly 100 billion gallons of water a year. Cotton, by contrast, needs 40 percent less water per acre, and tomatoes require about half as much water as almonds.
Also, unlike cotton and tomatoes, almonds are a “permanent” crop, meaning the land they’re grown on can’t lie fallow when water is scarce. “It means farmers really do need to get a hold of water in dry years in order to keep the trees alive,” explained Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and an expert on water.