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A food & fuel Thanksgiving

The producers of our daily bread and energy contend with nature, and sometimes governments that take their production for granted

A food & fuel Thanksgiving

An almond farmer replaces a damaged almond tree with a new tree in his orchard in Shafter, Calif. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Flared natural gas is burned off at the Deadwood natural gas plant in the Permian Basin in Garden City, Texas

Handout

Talley Farm employees harvest cabbage

Michael Stravato/The New York Times/redux

Oil rigs near Midland, Texas

WORLD/archive

WORLD’s 2001 Thanksgiving issue

Like most Americans today, we grew up in cities and suburbs, with food and fuel coming from supermarkets and gas stations. We did not think about our dependence on a relatively small number of farmers and energy providers. Politicians call themselves “public servants,” but our real servants risk their livelihoods each week to bring us what we rarely think about and often take for granted.

Some of those servants live in two areas, one made up of central California valleys and the other comprising the Permian Basin of West Texas. God blessed the valleys with warm days, cool nights, fertile soil, and year-round growing opportunities so fine that California farmers produce one-third of all the vegetables Americans eat and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts, with enough left over to feed other parts of the world and reduce our trade deficit. God gave the Permian Basin a rough climate and barrenness above ground but oil and gas riches beneath.

EIGHTY PERCENT OF THE WORLD'S ALMONDS grow in California’s Central Valley—a huge area about 450 miles long and 50 to 75 miles wide. The Central Valley also yields up 99 percent of the nation’s walnuts, figs, clingstone peaches, dates, pomegranates, kiwi fruit, and artichokes—plus about 200 other crops. But Ted Bloemhof, a second-generation farmer who lives near Bakersfield at the southern end of the Valley, worries that some nonfarmers “want all farmland to go back to natural habitat.”

Bloemhof entered almond farming in 1980, when conventional wisdom was that almonds “won’t grow here. It’s too hot in the summer.” But when Bloemhof tried, the almonds grew. So did Bloemhof’s family: He and his wife Lorraine have 10 children, most of whom work in the family business. They farm several thousand acres of almonds and manage thousands of acres more for others: “We harvest a lot of acres. Shake ’em. Sweep ’em. Pick ’em up.”

The Bloemhofs 10 years ago opened an almond processing plant that sells wholesale around the world: “Korea, Japan, China, India. You name it: Dubai, Denmark, Germany, African countries.” But getting almonds from tree to table isn’t easy, as farmers face many natural obstacles. A freeze during bloom time can be devastating. Almond trees are not self-pollinating, so bees are crucial in the process, and if it’s too cold, the bees don’t leave their hives. Lots can go wrong during the harvest: Rain is bad, worms and other bugs can ruin almonds, and critters can eat them. 

Water shortages and labor laws are forcing almond farmers to be creative. They’re using water more efficiently and automating tasks that used to be done by hand, as we learned during a trip to the Bloemhof farm at harvest time in September. Along the road is a sign with a warning: “Caution: Blowing Dust.” Harvesting almonds is dusty business: 100-degree temperatures combine with no rain or irrigation at harvest time to create very dry conditions, which the harvesting equipment turns into clouds of dust.

Harvesting equipment is expensive—and it’s crop specific. For instance, small farmers can’t afford to own a sweeper (cost: $175,000), so they hire specialty companies like the Bloemhofs’ to harvest their crops.

Picture this scene: Rows of almond trees a quarter mile long, with trees spaced 20 or so feet apart, from trunk to trunk. They look closer because the branches fill the spaces between the trees. Shakers—tractors with long arms and pinchers at the end—drive down the orchard rows, grabbing hold of each tree and vigorously shaking it, creating a hailstorm of falling almonds.

The almonds sit on the ground until the husks have dried, a process that can take a week or 10 days. Then another piece of equipment—the sweeper—comes through. It has brushes and blowers that gently move the almonds from under the tree onto a windrow down the center of the orchard row. As the low-slung sweeper passes under the branches, it throws up ­billows of dust and leaves the area under the trees clean. Later, harvesting machines will come down the same orchard windrows and pick up the almonds, separating them from twigs and other debris.

The Bloemhof processing plant is largely automated. Forklifts move wooden boxes of almonds around the plant, computers keep track of what’s in each box, and sophisticated machines sort the almonds by variety, size, and quality. Sorters with infrared cameras kick out damaged kernels. Workers drive the forklifts, enter data into computers, run the machines, and do a final hand sort of the product—but the plant is much more automated today than plants were a decade ago. Increases in California’s minimum wage (to $15 an hour) and overtime rules (kicking in after an eight-hour day) make that trend likely to continue.

The Bloemhofs recently expanded their warehouse. They fill orders throughout the year from boxes of almonds sorted to meet different specifications: Pristine nonpareils for China; almonds in the shell for India; broken ones for flours and ­butters. California farmers in 2014 exported about 1.3 billion pounds of almonds valued at $4.5 billion.

That success is up for grabs in California’s great water debate, with almonds coming under criticism because (according to the Water Footprint Network) it takes 1,900 gallons of water to grow a pound of almonds, about the same as it takes to grow a pound of beef. (Those figures don’t account for husks, which is food for dairy cattle, or shells, which become livestock bedding.) On the other hand, government regulators during the past eight years have required about 1.6 trillion gallons of water to be flushed into San Francisco Bay in an attempt to protect the 3-inch California delta smelt, an endangered species. The main culprit, though, may be largemouth bass that sport fishermen introduced to California 100 years ago.

Randy Bloemhof says the water issue “is not about almonds or pistachios. ... It’s about farming and food. … We talk about foreign oil dependency. How about foreign food dependency?”

CLOSER TO THE COAST sits the Arroyo Grande Valley, where farmers grow lemons, grapes, and vegetables such as bell peppers, cilantro, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and napa cabbage.

At Talley Farms headquarters in Arroyo Grande, 75 to 80 semi trucks arrive daily to pick up produce. Agriculture has changed a lot since Oliver Talley began the business in 1948. Technology and methods have improved, but his grandchildren still worry about water and labor.

We saw the effects of California’s continuing drought in early September. Todd Talley said it’s unprecedented not to be harvesting six days a week in the fall—but on a Friday afternoon the fields were quiet. Some reasons: farmers planting fewer acres because they don’t have water to plant more, and fields yielding less because the soil is tired. The fields even look ­different: more dust. Previously, farmers watered roads to hold down dust. Since dust is bad for plants, watering the roads might make agricultural sense, but it doesn’t make PR sense during a drought.

Finding a ready supply of legal workers is also a problem. Talley Farms has turned to the federal H-2A program that brings farm workers in on special short-term visas. Bureaucratic delays are costly, though: This year, when a napa cabbage crew faced a 45-day delay at the U.S.-Mexico border, the cabbages rotted in the field.

One result of a lack of both water and workers: weeds. Ryan Talley says pre-irrigation—watering the dirt to germinate the weeds for easier tilling—is one of the best ways to control weeds. When water is scarce, farmers often can’t pre-irrigate, and that means relying on labor to weed the fields manually. And without sufficient labor, weeds abound.

The Talleys note that government officials who design policies affecting agriculture often know little about it—“legislating from behind a desk.” Farmers are spending more time warding off harmful legislation. An open invitation to California legislators to visit the farm has had few takers.

One of the biggest current debates concerns water. When the Talleys hear talk of officials monitoring wells, they worry the next step will be deep, across-the-board water restrictions. Since Talley Farms already has replaced sprinklers with drip irrigation that uses much less water, they say a mandated cut of a further 20 to 30 percent would radically reduce productivity.

Some critics speak of returning agricultural land to a supposed Edenic past, but the Arroyo Grande Valley used to be full of raspberry thickets and grizzly bears. Pioneers tamed the land so that it now brings forth the fruits and vegetables that fill our grocery store shelves—but instead of being thankful, some of us are suspicious.

The grandsons we talked with—Todd, Ryan, and Brian Talley—are grateful to be farmers despite the challenges. They received a farm in good condition and want to pass down to the next generation “a thriving farm that is healthier than when we received it.” Ryan Talley calls agriculture “a national security issue. I want to know where my food’s coming from. I want it to be grown here in the United States for the most part.”

NATIONAL SECURITY: Seems strange to be talking about that in relation to food, or in a place like Midland, Texas, where every stereotype Hollywood has about Texas comes to life. Pickup trucks are omnipresent, and needed to drive on washboard ranch roads. The land is huge and flat, the sky is big, and a prairie dog colony sits right across from Tim Dunn’s snazzy new downtown headquarters building.

Dunn is the CEO of CrownQuest, which on one level identifies, acquires, explores, and develops oil and natural gas properties, but in a deeper sense upgrades our national security: If Washington officials give it and other companies green lights, Americans will no longer depend on Saudi Arabia for the gas to drive past those lights.

Midland sits atop the Permian Basin, what Dunn calls “a big bowl full of sediment that’s full of oil.” We drove southwest of Midland through one of the top energy-producing counties in the nation, Loving County, with a resident population of 67 in 2000. In only 13 years the regular population soared by 42 percent: way up to 95 humans, far outnumbered by trucks and pipes. The county’s oil production during that period quadrupled from 124,000 barrels to 506,000, and natural gas doubled from 1.7 billion cubic feet to 3.4 billion.

Knowing where to drill depends on simulations and visualizations that help staffers figure out what’s going on in rock formations 2 miles down: CrownQuest’s field office includes an enormous conference room starring three high-definition projectors and 9-foot screens. A map in one office uses dots to represent every vertical well and tiny horizontal lines to show the fracked wells. Dunn estimates that only 1 percent of the wells that will be fracked have been fracked.

Dunn says companies like his are “dealing with immense complexities … with things that are incomprehensible.” They have to figure out which formations 2 miles under the earth are most likely to yield rewards, and their knowledge is limited to the measurements they take through a 5-inch hole that descends 2 miles. Because of that research, U.S. oil production from 2009 to 2015 grew by 4 million barrels per day, with 60 percent of that coming from Texas, which now accounts for almost two-fifths of U.S. oil production and one-fourth of domestic natural gas output.

Outside of Midland, drilling rigs tower over scrubby ­mesquite trees, cacti, and prairie grasses, with no buildings in sight. Pump jacks like praying mantises bend and rise. The beauty of being in an unbeautiful place: Few people are around to object to noisy construction and 30 to 40 trucks lumbering down the road.

Fracking and other developments have now made the cost of a gallon of gas closer to $2 than to $4. Some risk is inevitable, but energy men and women explain energetically that fracking goes on far below water tables, that they take great precautions to avoid those dangers, and that their record ­suggests the greatest fear we should have is overreacting to fear itself. Our Q&A with Tim Dunn on page 24 ­provides more information.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO at this time of year America was recovering from the 9/11 terrorist attack, and our cover story told of a Norman Rockwell exhibit. This year, thankfully, the United States has not suffered a terrorist attack as deadly as 9/11, but we have had the most difficult presidential election ­season since the 1860 campaign led to civil war. This Thanksgiving might begin a time to bind up the nation’s wounds and to be thankful for the bounty God has given us, and those who harvest it. 

Providers and consumers should be partners, not enemies, and the place for appreciation to begin is with Chapter 3 of Genesis, where God tells Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. … By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” We often have a sub-Biblical theology of work that doesn’t recognize thorns and how hard it is to grow food (and extract energy). We may imagine that returning central California to its 19th-century condition would leave us with a garden, but that’s not right: It would be a desert.

Ted Bloemhof in California sums it up well: “Farmers are doing more and more and more with less and less. … You don’t notice it because you just go to the store and grab it off the shelf.” Or, fill up the tank to go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. 

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

Susan Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.