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Down on the Farm: Tale of two valleys

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The white flakes blowing across the freeway in California's Central Valley looked like snow, but the temperatures were in the 80s. The flakes were petals blowing from thousands of almond trees just finishing their bloom the first week of March.

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Almond farmers hope the honey bees, some of them brought down from the Red River Valley of the North just to pollinate the almonds, did their job, for the Central Valley provides 70 percent of the world's supply.

At 450 miles long and sixty miles across, California's rich Central Valley is similar in shape, size and quality of soil to the Red River Valley of the North.

Farms of the Red River Valley fill the baking supplies aisle of the grocery store, while the Central Valley takes care of the produce section.

The 260 cash crops raised in the Central Valley include anything you'd want to eat. Or smoke, for that matter.

The bounty is evident as you drive the highways. Immense warehouses for a single crop like tangerines. Or garlic. Or asparagus. Fallen oranges litter the highway near a citrus orchard and nobody picks them up.

The overflowing richness of the Central Valley has been drawing immigrants for generations, including thousands of farmers from North Dakota during the Depression.

My maternal Grandpa Geiszler made a living hauling German-Russian families from North Dakota out to Lodi, Cali., where they quickly found work in the fields or the processing plants.

It isn't in the official family history, but word is that on the return trip, he filled his truck with contraband casks of California wine.

One historian claims that by 1933, over half of the population of Lodi consisted of German-Russians from North Dakota. No more.

Immigration has continued, and from all over the world. Today, six million people live in the farm cities of the Central Valley.

Where every eight miles we might find a farm town of 800 along a highway in the Red River Valley, in the Central Valley those towns are 8,000, or 80,000, or even 800,000.

All you have to do to understand the overcrowding is step outside and feel the sunshine, see the masses of orange wildflowers in the the ditches and enjoy the thousands of blooming fruit trees.

Or, pick up some fresh citrus for a couple of dollars a bag.

The weather and the food is why the people came. But like much of California, the Central Valley feels over-run. Highways are crowded and in tough shape. Downtowns are shabby. Crime is evident.

Most troubling is the potential for water shortages. All of the Central Valley is irrigated. Farmers fight a constant battle to keep the water flowing.

In fact, a war over water is probably the biggest cloud on California's agricultural horizon.

Do you dam up all the streams in order to replenish the reservoirs, thus killing the salmon?

Do you force city people to leave their swimming pools empty at 101 degrees so a few orange trees can bear more fruit?

Do you let the golf courses turn brown, thus annoying the Silicon Valley big money, in order to keep the price of strawberries down?

The tug of war is constant and will just get worse. Billboards all along the Central Valley's highway system make the farmer's point: Less water means fewer jobs.

Climate aside, the biggest economic fact separating the Red River Valley of the North from the Central Valley of California is the nature of the water supply.

We have wet years and we have dry years up north, but unlike the arid west, we don't often go to court to fight for our water. It comes or it doesn't.

But what if snowfalls decline in the Sierras for many years in a row, leaving California's reservoirs empty and taxing the aquifer beyond its capacity to recover?

The fight over who gets water during a severe shortage wouldn't be pretty.

Back in the Red River Valley, we grumble about the rain or we grumble about the lack of rain, but we are truly blessed in one regard: None of us has figured out how to control it.

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Eric Bergeson

Eric Bergeson is the third generation owner of Bergeson Nursery in Fertile, Minn., a business started by his grandfather in 1937. He also writes a weekly column for several newspapers in northwestern Minnesota. He has published four books, including most recently Pirates on the Prairie, which the Minneapolis Tribune called "a Minnesota cultural and historical treasure." You can read more from Eric at his website, The Country Scribe

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