Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sacramento Valley

Today I traveled to Stockton with the family. California. The snow in the Sierra Nevada gives way to rolling hills gives way to green flatlands. It is a lush valley with straight stretches of freeway.

As you look out on the landscape, cows graze on a green too green to be green and the edge of suburbia frames the fields. The Sacramento Valley is a land of contradiction and carefully rewritten history. While the valley is fairly flat and vast, it is difficult to see far because of the smog. While the grass is beautifully green, it did not exist there before man. While the suburban edge appears clearly defined by large picket fences, it has steadily encroached on open space. Most developments in the valley are less than 20 years old. The land that these new developments are built on was generally once large open pastureland or farmland. Before that, the land was grassland and marshland. It once supported huge populations of wild antelope and brown bears. Now has either cows and unnaturally green alfalfa, or it has winding cul-de-sacs filled with identical homes.

In researching the California agriculture and ranching industries, it becomes apparent that every industry is an environmental one. Many ranchers in California get grazing permits to let their cattle loose on pristine pasture owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As their website states, they have an active interest in making sure that land stays open, wild, and free. What they neglect to mention is that in the winter, or if the farms are too far away from this BLM land, then the owners will simply convert the land to alfalfa or grass in the valley. While the Sacramento Valley is certainly not as arid as the San Joaquin Valley, it does still get very little water. The solution for the valley to support the water intensive pasture crops (grass, alfalfa) is to irrigate the hell out of the land. That means converting thousands of acres of grassland into irrigated tracks of monoculture. This land is utterly useless for other creatures or crops that aren't cows.

So it becomes cow land. Cows are some of the most inefficient animals on the planet. It can take up to 40,000 pounds of water to create 1 pound of beef. By contrast, a horse can be raised in the high desert landscape of Nevada without any human help at all. They have been so successful that they are overpopulated and many wild horses are now confined to pens because they are tearing up the desert landscape. The cows are mostly sold as regular beef instead of the pricier grass fed. Why? Because America likes its beef cornfed. Cornfed? There aren't any corn fields in the Sacramento Valley. Precisely. Before the cows are hauled off to the slaughterhouse, the animals are put in feed lots where they are given a double dose of antibiotics, corn feed, and possibly tasty bits of other cows. Cows are put on these lots, fattened up and shipped out.

In other words, the Sacramento Valley is a huge fattening station for a food animal so inefficient that even before it is taken to be killed it has to be penned up in an enormous shed and force fed bits of antibiotics, growth hormone, high calorie corn, and its own species. Thousands upon thousands of acres have been converted in California to satisfy our demand for beef, and it isn't even profitable.

The government subsidizes an appalling amount of our beef. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into the pockets of the California cattle ranchers in subsidies. These farmers don't pay full price for their water either, so every 40,000 pounds of water for that one pound of beef only costs the rancher fractions of a cent on the dollar. And that's not to mention the huge costs incurred to our roadways in transportation of these beasts and their feed, which comes from corn producing states such as Iowa. If one were to fully internalize the costs of the beef industry as is the industry would look like a joke.

Aside from our insatiable desire for cow as a nation, what keeps the cattle ranchers alive? A couple things: attitude, and fear. As I wrote about the beef industry in California it became obvious that cows kind of suck as a mass produced animal. It would be much easier to eat dogs, or cats, or horses. All are animals that are easy to raise in a variety of environments at low cost. But we don't. The point is that beef is a tradition. The west wouldn't be the west without cowboys. Cowboys wouldn't be cowboys without cows—they'd just be boys. The Cowboy West mindset is firmly ingrained in our decision making in America. We cannot escape—especially in the west—the feeling that if we ever turned on the industry we would be turning our backs on the men who made us and the men who made this nation great.

The second problem is fear. When I rant about the beef industry I sound like a nut job. Sure the numbers are irrefutable, but it just doesn't feel right talking about beef like it's stupid. In fact, it's kind of scary. It is, after all, one of our main meat staples in America. To talk about meat as if it were just raw numbers seems to ignore the fact that I am talking about the destruction of many people's livelihoods as well as the security of part of our food supply. It's scary stuff. I don't deny that. Look at those numbers again though; I won't make the obvious argument that our security would lie in a more sustainable means of production and distribution.

Beef is a steadily dwindling problem for the Sacramento region. Instead, it is rapidly being replaced by the new form of American development. Suburbia. Suburban developments are going to be the death of the Cattleman, T.S. Eliot's whimper. Is that replacement good? How about this, the average American walks less than 340 yards per day. That amounts to less than 1.4 miles a week. We seldom walk anywhere anymore. The quiet cul-de-sacs that we have built, with our perfectly trimmed lawns and identical facades have effectively killed exercise. Bill Bryson makes a stunning case for the suburbanization of America in his book A Walk In The Woods. We now drive a quarter mile to the gym to run on a treadmill. We barely walk ever.

When I lived in Boston last summer, I hardly ever went anywhere other than by walking. The T is extremely convenient but I realized that walking is more fun and often easier. As long as the weather is halfway decent, walking makes sense. It became my number one choice for moving myself around, and it was easy. I preferred walking. Question? Is it hard to say that? I prefer walking.

Suburbia has utterly killed walking. No store is conveniently located in suburbia. There are large neighborhoods with huge roadways and no sidewalks. Our shopping centers are located by freeways with enormous parking lots. Bike lanes are in the minority. Huge outdoor malls have now been created with the parking lots in the center and the stores on the fringes. Walking to any destination is impossible. These suburbias have actually isolated us from our neighbors, our local businesses, nature, and even our feet.

I suppose that is a glimpse at why I am looking for better regional planning. That is why my thesis (going on four years now) is all about looking for a happy medium. We can't keep disconnecting like this. I don't want to drive everywhere alone in my SUV with the A/C up. I want to reconnect with my community. I want my community to reconnect with me.