Farming over the Edge

Agriculture: Place, people and agronomy

By Steve Quirt

Today, Marin is know as a progressive and well off place with a knack for being ahead of the curve on most things. The Prince of Wales came here and enjoyed the organic farms and lifestyle that we have nurtured. Today, we make award winning cheese and support a premier organic milk industry. Our vegetable farms are organic. All this and more has occurred in last fifteen years as Marin agriculture emerged from a period of dairy closings, generational succession fears and changing population patterns to a Renaissance of agricultural relevance. We have the right attitude about agriculture here, even as we squabble. And as “consumers” we are interested in local, healthy organic food and support those who grow it. How did we get here? Why Marin? Is this part of our own “sense of place”? How are we connected to our past and those who farmed and harvested before us? How do we compare, here, today, with the first people, the Miwok, in knowing our sense of place and how to get our sustenance from the land without harm? How did the first European settlers use this place? What was their sense of place? Today, what is our “sense of place”, especially in regards to agriculture?

Place provides a home and the resources needed to sustain life for plants animals and people. Place is community. Place is home. Place contains history, the known and the unknown, the tracks and stories of those who came before, the possibilities and expectations for the future, the energy for the challenges of today. People inhabit and are a product of place, at some level.

Before the Europeans arrived here in California, the first people were rooted in their sense of place, were coauthors of their place, and were inseparable from their place—their sustenance, agronomy and culture were rooted in place. They were one with it. I like to use this as a base line to look at the history of our agriculture: a people in relative balance with their place.

Native American Horticulture

17,000 – 12,000 years ago: anthropologists like to use these dates to mark the migrations from north east Asia. But who knows how long ago and how far away the early travelers came? Conventional history says that the Coast Miwok were the first people to inhabit Marin, but it is likely that different peoples have lived and eaten here. The settling of pre-history California may have been strung out over the centuries. Migrations and explorations by historically “early” humans found Marin a land filled with rich and abundant resources, and made it their “place”.

Humans have been here in Marin growing, harvesting and managing the landscape for a long time. Here is what M. Kat Anderson says in her book “Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources”,

California Indians protected and tended favored plant species and habitats, harvested plant and animal products at carefully worked out frequencies and intensities, and practiced an array of horticultural techniques. Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years. In other words, California Indians were able to harvest the food and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving—and sometimes increasing—the plant populations from which they came.

That is a pretty good definition of sustainability. California Indians were able to harvest the food and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving—and sometimes increasing—the plant populations from which they came.

A study of California Indigenous people tells us that they lived a lifestyle well balanced with the plants, animals and human neighbors with which they shared the earth. Kat Anderson reminds us in her book that things weren’t always so well balanced and that large animal extinction probably occurred and it took a few thousand years to get a sustainable food system going that actually improved the landscape. It is interesting to note that these people had a different concept of land ownership, food supplies and getting along than we have today. For instance, a dispute over who harvests or doesn’t harvest oysters from Drakes Estero would be solved by local discussion and need, rather than an arcane, unknowable source located on the other side of a continent.

Centuries of intimate relationship with place endowed the indigenous people with a respect and earth-partnership that began to fade with the influx of Spanish settlers whose linear systems of ownership and economic measurement were so foreign to the first peoples. The beginnings of the native population degradation came with the military-like installation of the Spanish Missions, transforming the garden-like landscapes of California into Rancheros and Haciendas. The Missions were modeled after the Roman Empire outposts that dotted the Old World like beads on an Imperialistic necklace, with full garrisons of Spanish troops. The missionaries and soldiers quickly the native cultures, thus greatly demising the Indians long cultivated sense of place.

It took the Spanish a few hundred years to change the natural gardens of the Native Peoples into cleanly divided parcels on maps with all the baggage of ownership and protection. The caretakers of the land were slowly colonized and removed from their centuries old systems of natural management, and a more European styled form of agriculture began to emerge.

Despite its primitive nature, mission agriculture flourished. In 1821, California’s harvest peaked 120,000 bushels of wheat; by 1834, livestock totaled 400,000 head. With achievements in stock raising, grain growing, and irrigated orchards and gardens, the missions demonstrated a wide range of agricultural possibilities. – Seeds of Change: the Beginnings of California Agriculture David Zuckermann

Change comes

The invaders brought with them their European Old World models of agriculture—cattle, grain, irrigation, rows and mono cropping, personal ownership and wealth. This more aggressive and intense use of the land opened up a fertility paradise to the early Spanish agriculturists, who mined the seemingly endless natural wealth easily, never suspecting that the bounties they enjoyed were directly linked to centuries of careful labor and nurturing by the people they were enslaving.

In 1835 the Spanish government shut down its mission system and auctioned off the lands it had usurped to settlers; meaning rich, elite individuals and loyal military personnel who wanted the resources to develop business ventures like cattle and grain. Hides, tallow and wheat were shipped from San Francisco and there was a brisk trade with the East Coast. The shipping culture brought with it even more modernizations that began to put pressure on the native peoples and their landscape. The seeds of modern California agriculture were being sown, and the new was rapidly altering the sense of place. Marin was no exception. By the time of California Statehood, the local Miwok had become Vaqueros herding Spanish cattle to the Sierra Gold mines to feed the burgeoning population of immigrating miners and fortune hunters.

The Gold Rush had arrived.

Published November 2014

Next: The history of Marin Agriculture: Butter, milk and family farming