“Now some people call this place the world’s greenhouse."
  • “Now some people call this place the world’s greenhouse."
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Pa said, "Wait till we get to California. You'll see nice country then. "Jesus Christ, Pa! This here is California.

The Joad family, in The Grapes of Wrath

Dust Bowl Okies weren’t the first travelers to be demoralized by the desolation of California’s deserts — not by at least 200 years. In December of 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition from Yuma, through the Salton Desert, to San Gabriel. In his journal he described that adventure as “the journey of the dead.’’

Farm laborers earn the minimum wage, $4.05 per hour.

Farm laborers earn the minimum wage, $4.05 per hour.

Even today a traveler cruising comfortably along Interstate 8 in an air-conditioned car can see what de Anza meant. The desert is green now with cotton and Sudan grass, and the air smells sweet with alfalfa. In El Centro a traveler can get a room at Motel 6 and a Big Mac just down the street. But there is still something about the valley — the unmerciful heat, the layer of salt that cakes on the surface of the soil, the shimmering horizon — that says this place never was meant for people.

Cotton.  “Most of the first farmers were from the Midwest,” Keith Mayberry says. “They knew nothing about farming in the desert."

Cotton. “Most of the first farmers were from the Midwest,” Keith Mayberry says. “They knew nothing about farming in the desert."

What used to be known as the Salton Desert is now, by a stroke of genius on the part of some anonymous real-estate promoter, known as the “Imperial Valley.’’ But the new name isn’t all hype. For some people — a small minority of the valley’s residents — it has indeed become the Imperial Valley. For many other less fortunate residents, however, it’s still the Salton Desert.

Keith Mayberry, one of the county’s farm agents, eases his rattly old government pickup onto the banks of the All-American Canal and points across the green ribbon of water to the snarl of creosote bushes and yellow sand on the other side. “That’s what this whole valley looked like before the pioneers settled it,’’ he says.

Rain-For-Rent irrigation pipes. the biggest problem that had to be overcome was the tremendous salinity of the water coming from the Colorado River.

Rain-For-Rent irrigation pipes. the biggest problem that had to be overcome was the tremendous salinity of the water coming from the Colorado River.

It makes Mayberry feel proud to think that such a barren desert could be transformed into some of the richest farm land in the world. After twenty years of working as farm agent in the valley, Mayberry has played a significant role in that miracle. He has seen some of his research, innovations, and just plain old day-to-day hard work pay off for the valley’s agricultural industry. When he says, “Now some people call this place the world’s greenhouse,’’ he has a right to be proud of this technological miracle of modem agriculture.

Don Sones: “What changed this whole area was the absentee landowner.”

Don Sones: “What changed this whole area was the absentee landowner.”

Before 1901 nobody but lizards, snakes, and a few roadrunners considered the Imperial Valley habitable. For thousands of years, the valley had been a sink that was periodically flooded by the Colorado River. Those floodings filled the valley with rich soil that was, in some places, several thousand feet thick. But there was no potable water in the valley and almost no rainfall. The groundwater, though only a few feet below the surface, was too salty for irrigating crops. So while the rest of the American West was being settled, the Imperial Valley sat baking in the sun.

Cotton harvesting. The gross farm income for Imperial County in 1987 placed it among the top ten agricultural counties in the United States.

Cotton harvesting. The gross farm income for Imperial County in 1987 placed it among the top ten agricultural counties in the United States.

There are several books, and even a novel, that tell the story of how the Colorado River was diverted and an irrigation system developed in the Imperial Valley during the first decade of this century. If the story were ever made into a TV mini-series, the synopsis might read: “A young engineer, Charles Rockwood, pursues his dream of luring Midwestern farmers to invest in a worthless desert, which he promises to turn into the Garden of Eden by diverting the Colorado River. After years of fraud, chicanery, lawsuits, and the intervention of the evil ‘big gov’ment,’ Rockwood succeeds with his scheme. A surprise ending is added when the unruly Colorado River double-crosses Rockwood, jumps its banks, and forms the Salton Sea.”

Westmorland looks like the kind of Dust Bowl community the Joads, in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, came to California to escape.

Westmorland looks like the kind of Dust Bowl community the Joads, in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, came to California to escape.

By 1906, there were 130,000 acres of irrigated land being firmed in the Imperial Valley, and prospects looked promising enough that there was a rush of real-estate speculation in the valley. In that year. The Desert Farmer, a farm magazine published in El Centro, declared, “Nowhere in the world is agriculture so intelligently carried on ... nowhere is it so productive, and nowhere have the problems of poverty, isolation, and failure been so effectually attacked.”

Real-estate companies in the valley prospered by promising farmers riches beyond belief. "The food supply of the world is not keeping pace with the world’s increase in population," an advertisement in The Desert Farmer announced. “In our day, farmer’s will rule, as well as own, the earth. Imperial Willey, the Inland Empire, is the most fertile and best watered body of land to be found in the Great West. Come to Imperial!

"Not long ago, we had a labor contractor cited for having his workers weed asparagus with their bare hands — no tools."

"Not long ago, we had a labor contractor cited for having his workers weed asparagus with their bare hands — no tools."

But over the next twenty or thirty years, far more farmers failed in the Imperial Valley than prospered. The problem wasn’t that the soil wasn’t fertile — it was — but that farming in the Imperial Valley wasn’t like farming anyplace else on the continent. “Most of the first farmers were from the Midwest,” Keith Mayberry says. “They knew nothing about farming in the desert, and they made a lot of mistakes. They were used to doing things like they had back in Iowa, and those methods led to disaster here. The best farmers turned out to be the ones who’d had no previous farming experience.”

While a farmer from the Midwest planted in the spring, depended on rains to water his crop during the summer, and harvested in the fall, farmers in the Imperial Valley learned they could plant some crops in the fall, irrigate during the winter, and harvest in the spring. Also, rather than relying on the traditional Midwestern grain crops, farmers in the Imperial Valley learned there was more profit in vegetable crops like peas, carrots, and tomatoes.

But the biggest problem that had to be overcome was the tremendous salinity of the water coming from the Colorado River. Even today the river carries one ton of salt per acre-foot (326,000 gallons). Farmers are dumping between five and seven tons of salt per acre per year on their fields — enough to kill any crop. The most successful strategy for dealing with the salt build-up has been the installation of drainage systems under the fields. With each irrigation, any salt that has been deposited by previous irrigations is dissolved, leached out of the soil, and carried away through the underground drainage system of perforated plastic pipes. The pipes drain into a waste canal system that drains into the Salton Sea. (As might be expected, the salinity of the Salton Sea has increased steadily over the years, and eventually, unless something is done, the salinity will kill all fish in the sea.) But the leaching system, combined with modem irrigation techniques, has solved the problem of salt build-up in the soil, and according to Mayberry, “Salts are no longer a restricting factor in growing vegetables in the Imperial Valley.”

There’s no doubt that farming in the valley has become enormously profitable — at least for some farmers.

The valley has a climate that plants love, even if people don’t. It has water, fertile soil, and cheap labor. The gross farm income for Imperial County in 1987 was $805,815,000, placing it among the top ten agricultural counties in the United States. Last year the county produced $56 million just in carrots, and $52 million in cantaloupes.

The Japanese are eager to buy the valley’s vegetable produce. Much of the excellent broccoli grown in the valley ends up in stir-fry dishes in Japan. Last year one farmer in Calexico sent to Japan a 747 cargo plane filled with nothing but asparagus.

Sudan grass, an animal feed that was once an almost worthless fill crop in the Imperial Valley, is now being sold to the Japanese for $120 a ton. (The Japanese would prefer alfalfa, but they have no import restrictions on Sudan grass.) The grass is exported on the return voyages of ships that bring Japanese automobiles to the U.S. The economic benefits to the U.S. are obvious: It takes about ten acres of Sudan grass to pay for one Toyota pickup, and there were about 25,000 acres of Sudan grass planted in the valley last year. So, roughly speaking, there were 2500 Toyotas grown in Imperial County’s Sudan grass fields last year.

In spite of this prosperity, the miracle of modern agriculture has become a tragedy for many people living in the valley. It’s apparent to anyone driving through the Imperial Valley that something is very wrong in this agricultural paradise. Westmorland, a mostly Hispanic community of farm workers with a population of 1800 people, looks like the kind of Dust Bowl community the Joads, in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, came to California to escape. Many of the homes and businesses are boarded up or abandoned. Dead automobiles and rusted farm machinery line the streets. The farm workers live in dilapidated one-room hovels rented by the week or month. The most active business in town is Johnny’s Liquor. This is a community that’s dying, and the valley is foil of towns very much like it.

Imperial County has the highest rate of heroin use of any place in the United States. One reason for the high addiction rate is the proximity to the Mexican border — much of the Mexican brown heroin enters the U.S. in Imperial County. But much of the heroin use in the Imperial Valley has to be credited to the desperation of the area’s residents.

In El Centro, which is the county seat and by far the most prosperous town in the valley, there are neighborhoods of tidy homes and green, well-kept yards. But there are also neighborhoods of poverty and squalor as bad as any in the nation. In the downtown area, the unpainted buildings and boarded-up windows are like some gangrenous rot creeping in from the surrounding communities. Unemployed farm workers huddle in the shade outside the shopping centers, trying to find some relief from the 105-degree heat. The unemployment rate in the county for August was 28.6 percent, almost unchanged from the previous year. (By comparison, the unemployment rate for San Diego County in August was 4.7 percent.) One of the unemployed farm workers squats against the bumper of a dilapidated old Chrysler. Next to him, a bumper sticker reads, “I feel much better since I gave up hope.”

Imperial County is a place where living on welfare has become a way of life. In 1988, thirty-nine percent of the county’s budget, or nearly $31 million, was spent on public assistance. The amount spent on public assistance has increased by more than $12 million since 1983 — an increase of sixty-six percent. (In contrast, the amount the county spent on education in 1988 was less than $400,000, half of one percent of the total budget; it has increased by only ten percent since 1983.) Some critics have said the money spent on welfare in Imperial County is a disguised government subsidy of a system of farming that has shattered the community and destroyed the stability of people’s lives.

Across the valley from Westmorland is the farm town of Calipatria. Once known as “the winter pea capital of the world” and the home of hundreds of prosperous vegetable farmers, today much of Calipatria’s commercial district is abandoned and rotting. There’s only one grocery store in town; at one time there were eight. The Bank of America closed its doors recently. The only new housing in town is a federally subsidized apartment building. In nearby Niland, a town even harder hit than Calipatria, a study done by the county revealed that 17.3 percent of the buildings in town warranted condemnation.

Marcelina Jimenez, a mother of ten, was born and raised in Calipatria. Her father was one of the town’s first settlers. She’s seen Calipatria go from one of the valley’s most prosperous to one of the most impoverished, and the changes make her angry. "My grandkids are going to school here now, but I know they’re all going to have to leave,” she says. "I know they’re not going to be able to find any work. There’s nothing here for them to do. I don’t like it, but what can I do about it?”

Don Sones was raised in Niland and works now as a foreman for the local water district in Calipatria. He will be ready to retire in a year or two. He recalls the days before World War II, when dozens of Japanese-American farmers lived in and around Calipatria. “They were prosperous truck farmers,” he recalls. "They farmed anywhere from three to a hundred acres, and their produce was the best money could buy.”

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-Americans were put in relocation camps, and their farms fell to pieces. "Local people went out to their farms, tore down their homes, hauled the materials back, and built homes for themselves,” Sones says. "If they left any cars, the people just went out and took them.” That injustice leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, but Sones brings up the example of the Japanese-American farmers as an example of how prosperous the small-scale former once was in the valley. “That was a big setback for the Imperial Valley when they uprooted those people,” he says.

There are almost no successful small-scale farmers in the Imperial Valley today. In the area around Calipatria, where there were once farmhouses dotting the countryside, it’s now possible to drive for miles without seeing a residence. More common than farmhouses are fenced lots protecting millions of dollars’ worth of tractors and other farm machinery.

“What changed this whole area was the absentee landowner,” Sones says. “You don’t see the little ranch houses on every 160 acres anymore. We lost the farmer who lives on the farm.”

Absentee ownership of the land is one of the most bitter disputes in the valley today. Some critics have estimated that as much as ninety percent of the farm land in the Imperial Valley is owned by people living outside the county.

“Most of the land here is not owned by the people farming it,” agrees farm agent Keith Mayberry. “It’s leased. What happened was, the pioneers who settled all the farm land got old. Their kids didn’t want to farm, but they retained the land as an investment. So they leased the land out and moved away.”

Also, over the years as the family estates became available, large investors began buying up Imperial Valley farm land. Some of those investors are corporations like Tenneco, Southern Pacific, the Irvine Corporation, and others. “The Mormon church is one of the biggest investors in Imperial Valley farm land,” Mayberry says. “As near as I can tell, though, foreign investors — the Japanese and the Arabs — aren’t very interested in buying Imperial Valley farm land right now. And I think it’s good they aren’t.”

But Mayberry doesn’t believe that absentee landlords have been bad for farming. “Say you could buy prime farm land for $4000 an acre today. Well, you can go out and rent prime farm land for $250 per acre, per year. So the farmer gets the land cheaper than he could buy it.”

But what’s good for farmers may not be good for the rest of the valley’s residents, critics say. Their theory is that absentee landlords drain money from rural areas — money that would otherwise be spent in local stores and businesses. And turning farming into a speculative investment, rather than a way to work and raise a family, is partly responsible for the high cost of farm land, for the death of the small farmer, and, consequently, for the death of Imperial Valley communities.

There are several other factors that have contributed to the decline of small farms in the Imperial Valley. One is the competition of produce imported from Mexico, where farm labor is much cheaper. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are able to compete with Mexico by selling their produce when there are what Mayberry calls “windows of opportunity.” For example, they try to time their tomato crop so it’s ready for the market after Mexico has stopped producing its winter tomatoes but before the San Joaquin Valley’s tomatoes are ready. Still, the flood of imported produce drives prices down.

The big-scale farmer is able to survive through high volume, but the small-scale farmer, even though he may be producing more per acre, goes broke.

Another reason small farmers have disappeared in the Imperial Valley is that they don’t have the large cash reserves to see them through the lean years. “Farmers make money, basically, when there are shortage situations,” Keith Mayberry says. “You might grow cabbage in a year when the cabbage crop in Texas failed and you have the only cabbage in the United States. You could make $250,000 that year and then lose a thousand dollars per acre for the next ten years in a row. The small farmers weren’t able to survive consecutive poor years.” Once a small farmer goes broke, it’s almost impossible to get back into farming again. “To be in farming, you need about a quarter of a million dollars to start out with and maybe credit for another half a million,” Mayberry says. ‘‘For somebody to start out in farming is extremely difficult. In the last few years. I’ve seen several guys fail and one guy do it. But after one very successful season, that one guy made enough money to retire — and he didn’t invest his money in farming, either. He said it was too risky.”

In spite of the difficulties for the small farmer, Mayberry doesn’t believe the trend is toward bigger and bigger farms in the Imperial Valley. “I’ve seen the really big farms come and go, and the medium-sized, efficiently operated farms survive year after year. On the really big farms, there’s too many foremen driving around in pickup trucks doing the same thing other foremen are doing. The really big farms suffer from not having personal attention.”

Mayberry’s idea of a medium-sized farm, though — 2000 to 5000 acres — would be considered huge in other areas of the country, or even in the Imperial Valley fifty years ago. (One square mile comprises 640 acres; 5000 acres is nearly eight square miles, or roughly the size of National City.) The original settlers of the Imperial Valley believed that owning a large farm was a disadvantage. A hundred and sixty acres was considered too large for one man and his family to farm — forty acres was thought to be about right. But the development of modem farm machinery changed all that. Today, according to a federal court study, just 800 landowners hold about 233,000 of the valley’s 500,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

Even the critics of the large corporate farms agree that the days of the small farmer in the Imperial Valley are over. Cesar Enriquez is the director of Casa de Amistad, a community center in Brawley that works with farm workers. “I really was a believer in what our hero, Emiliano Zapata, said: ‘The people who work the land should own the land.’ But now, what for? A guy can’t make it on a hundred and sixty acres anymore. The big growers control the markets. It’s hopeless for the small farmer. There are guys who have worked in the fields all their lives and who would just love to farm. But they’ve got to face the facts. They aren’t going to make it.

“I know one guy who worked on the railroads for twenty years, saving his money. He went into forming for himself and lost everything in three years. Now he’s out working in the fields again, breaking his back.”

For several years, Enriquez and others like him believed the solution for small farmers was to band together into co-ops, so they could market their crops as one large unit that would compete with the big growers. “Back in the Seventies, we tried to organize some co-ops here,” he says. “They all failed. I traveled all over the Southwest visiting co-ops — they all failed, too.” Enriquez believes the reason the co-ops foiled was because of the resistance from the large corporate farmers. “Don’t talk to the corporate farmers about co-ops or you’ll get shot,” he laughs. “They think that’s communism. We tried to get financing through the Farmer’s Home Administration — that’s what they’re there for, to loan money to farmers — but they wouldn’t finance us. We saw lots of Anglo formers get loans through the FHA, but they wouldn’t finance the Mexican(-American) farmers."

Enriquez says the corporate farmers even prevent new, nonagricultural industry from coming to the valley, because the high unemployment rate in Imperial Valley benefits the growers.

"We tried to get a carpet factory here in the valley, but the corporate farmers fought it. They’re afraid a carpet factory might pay the worker a little higher wages, and they don’t want that. That’s a threat to them." As a result, workers in the valley have no alternatives other than leaving the place where their families may have lived for decades or accept whatever wages the large growers pay them.

But Keith Mayberry says it doesn’t matter who owns the land. "The guy who owns 3000 acres isn’t farming it by himself. If he’s got several foremen working for him and tractor drivers and other employees under them and they’re all making decent wages, what difference does it make?"

Mayberry points out that a skilled tractor driver might earn $20,000 a year, plus medical and retirement benefits. A qualified farm foreman might earn $40,000 a year, plus bonuses. “I know of one foreman who earned $100,000 in one year, just in bonuses,” he says.

To a certain extent, Enriquez agrees. “For the guy who used to own his own farm and who now works as a foreman on a corporate farm, maybe life for him is better in some ways, because he doesn’t have to gamble on the crops anymore and he earns a steady wage. But let's talk about the farm worker, the guy working in the fields. He’s nothing but a slave for the corporate farmer. He’s not even surviving, he’s just suffering."

Much of the farm labor in the Imperial Valley is supplied by commuters from nearby Mexicali. These farm workers are legal residents in the United States but choose to live in Mexico because the cost of living is much lower there than in the Imperial Valley. The town of Mexicali, which has grown to about one million people, has become a bedroom community to the Imperial Valley, where there are only about 105,000 residents.

This system of importing farm workers from Mexico benefits the growers in the Imperial Valley, because they are able to pay their workers less than what they would have to pay to get American residents to work there. (Farm laborers earn the minimum wage, $4.05 per hour.) But once again, this system drains money from the Imperial Valley and destroys the communities that once depended upon income from agriculture. “The farm workers around here are all contracted farm labor,” Don Sones, in Calipatria, says. “The guy you see irrigating the fields today might not be on the farm-labor bus tomorrow — you might never see him again, and meanwhile his wages go back to Mexico. None of it gets spent here in Calipat.”

Marcelina Jimenez agrees vigorously. “You see all this food coming out of the ground around here — peas and tomatoes — but once it’s picked, that’s it. the workers are gone, and their wages are gone with it."

Another source of farm workers in the Imperial Valley is the huge flood of immigrants from Central America who are trying to gain U.S. citizenship. These immigrants are known locally as “Rodinos,” after U.S. Congressman Peter Rodino, who helped sponsor the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Every morning outside the immigration office in El Centro, there are hundreds of these Rodinos waiting in line to have their citizenship papers processed.

Some of the Mexican and Mexican-American farm workers resent the Rodinos, because the working conditions for farm workers have deteriorated since this flood of immigrants began pouring into the valley. “The growers prefer to hire the Rodinos because they can mistreat them and pay them cheaper wages,” Enriquez says. “A Rodino won’t complain about working conditions, because there are twenty Rodinos behind him who want his job. So he has to be quiet and take the abuse."

Lupe Quintero, a social worker with the California Legal Rural Assistance in El Centro, says, “During the time there was unionization [under the United Farm Workers] going on here in the valley, things got better for the farm worker. Now there are virtually no union contracts. Now the workers are afraid to complain about working conditions because they want to become U.S. citizens and they’re afraid the farm labor contractor won’t help them become legalized.”

As examples of the working conditions for the farm workers, Quintero says, “There are people fighting just to get clean drinking water on the job, fighting to get toilets provided on the job. There are workers who aren’t given work breaks or even given time to eat, and they literally have to eat and work at the same time. Not long ago, we had a labor contractor cited for having his workers weed asparagus with their bare hands — no tools. The public isn’t aware that this sort of thing is happening in the 1980s, but it is."

The way Cesar Enriquez sees it, the way of life the Central American immigrants find in the Imperial Valley is the cruelest possible irony. After living under a feudal landlord system for centuries, they began to believe the living conditions in El Salvador and Guatemala were intolerable. Things were supposed to be different here in the United States, yet in the Imperial Valley they find exactly the same situation that is causing revolutions in Central America — a handful of wealthy landlords control all the farm land, while the people working the land live like animals. “It's a fact,” Enriquez says. “The Imperial Valley isn’t much different from that. These people are just like slaves here.”

Impossible as it may be, Enriquez says the only solution to the poverty in the Imperial Valley is “to go back to the old way, when real farmers lived on their own farms and farmed their own land."

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