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The Beautiful Schemers Who Took Desert and Marsh and Turned California Into an Agricultural Wonder

From the beginning, the Central Valley's productivity was a result of the most intensive farming experiment the world had ever seen. And now, farmers are pushing even harder against biological realities. An excerpt from Mark Arax's critically acclaimed new book, "The Dreamt Land."
U.S. horticulturalist Luther Burbank is considered the father of California agriculture and one of the first to manipulate plant genetics to create new versions of plums, potatoes, and other crops.

U.S. horticulturalist Luther Burbank is considered the father of California agriculture and one of the first to manipulate plant genetics to create new versions of plums, potatoes, and other crops.

The letters traveled from Fresno to Constantinople as the First World War was coming to an end. They were written with the purpose of selling a man without a country—my paternal grandfather in this instance—on the idea of California. He had survived the 1915–1918 Armenian Genocide by hiding in the attic of a dwelling he shared with his mother, sister, and brother on the Asiatic side of Constantinople. An aspiring poet, he had his mind set on moving to Paris and studying French literature at the Sorbonne. But the letters, each one more blood red than the one before, kept arriving from Fresno, already known as the "raisin capital of the world." They were written by his mother's brother, the last patriarch left in the family, who had fled Turkey after his wife and two children were killed in a massacre in their village on the shores of Lake Nicea. The uncle had lost everything and yet he had begun to believe, out of some obstinacy deep inside, that a new life was possible in a sunbaked valley in the lee of the Sierra.

"Here find an Eden of pomegranate and peach," he wrote to my grandfather Aram Arax. "Grapes that hang like jade eggs. Watermelons so capacious that when you finish eating their delicious meat, you can float inside their shells in the cool waters of irrigation canals." Paris or Fresno, which to choose? That my grandfather chose the latter became one of the longest running jokes in our family. He would find out soon enough that he had been played for a sucker. His uncle could hardly be blamed. The elder had been caught up in the "Golden State" hype, unwittingly enlisted in the legion of promoters proclaiming a new Eden in the Far West. Not since gold rush times had such spectacular tales been told about California. With slick pamphlets and colorful brochures, each city and county lined up side by side to boast about the fertile wonders that God had given them best. As a matter of fact, the stories of nature producing monstrosities in one blessed soil and another were true. The impression they left—that gold could now be plucked from vines and trees—was another matter.

Outside Fresno, in the little town of Parlier, founder I.N. Parlier had grown in his front yard a Calimyrna fig tree (half California, half Turkish Smyrna) to such proportions that its wingspan measured 85 feet wide and its trunk nine feet around. It became so magnificently laden with crop that the Parliers had to move their house three times to get out of its way. In Santa Barbara, a single vine bore in one season not pounds of grapes but tons. In San Jose, a pear weighing two pounds and 12 ounces astonished visitors to the state fair. In Chico, an orchard of cherry trees included one freak that produced 1,700 pounds of fruit in a single season. In Los Angeles, a pumpkin grew to such girth, a reported 1,200 pounds, that the farmer had to chop it off the vine with an ax.

In the spring of 1920, as my grandfather undertook his 7,000-mile migration by boat and train, a folklore of California climatology was being published to explain such aberrations. The California State Agricultural Society, Department of Meteorology, had chosen a booster from each county to sing that county's glories. "The climate of Solano is a benediction," one such pitchman began. "We have but little fog, no thunderstorms, lightning or tornadoes, no cyclones, no earthquakes, no blizzards, no sleets, no snow-drifting snows, no storms, not scalding heat in summer or freezing weather in winter. The wet and dry periods come with such regularity that the farmer knows just how to provide for them. He sows his seeds and cultivates his land with the positive assurance that the rain will come to sprout it and the sun will shine to warm it into life. When winter comes, it is only so in name and called such in order to distinguish different periods of the year. We have a rarity, crispness and tone of the atmosphere, freedom from malaria-breeding swamps, a perfect system of drainage so that epidemic disease, either among men or animals, is rarely known."

The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax is available for pre-order now.

The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax is available for pre-order now.

The curative powers of sun and air had made Southern California the first tropical land that "our race has mastered and made itself at home in," wrote Charles Nordhoff, a correspondent for Harper's and a barker for the Southern Pacific railroad. Even Carey McWilliams, one of the first chroniclers and debunkers of the California myth, couldn't contain himself when describing how the harsh desert light of Los Angeles turned into a thing of beauty the moment ocean mist rolled in. "This is not a desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones," he wrote. "It is Southern California light, and it has no counterpart in the world." Southern California, not so paradoxically, had become the destination of the invalid. Trainloads of the pallid were shipped out to God's country from New York, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. Carrying a doctor's diagnosis of jaundice, cirrhosis of the liver, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, fatty liver, weak kidneys, they gave themselves to the sunshine and liquid air. Sanitariums across the San Gabriel Valley kept filling with consumptives at the same time their more healthy kin flocked to the groves at the foot of the mountains to plant Washington navels end to end.

In Northern California, on 15 acres of gopher-riddled land outside Sebastopol, an amateur nurseryman from Massachusetts named Luther Burbank had set up a most peculiar shop. The genetic tampering that took place there—he had as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants at any one time—created the Santa Rosa plum, the Elberta peach, the plumcot (half plum, half apricot), and the eponymous Russet Burbank potato. The father of California horticulture was an odd strain himself. He stood five foot three with a long face and an emaciated body. Twice married, he produced no offspring of his own. A dignified man, he dressed in a black wool suit, bolo tie, and a short-brimmed top hat even while at work, because he never knew when a curious visitor might interrupt his test trials. People regarded him as half Darwin, half Edison, and he became known far and wide, much to his disliking, as "the plant wizard." Over a half century of breeding and hybridization, he created more than 800 strains and varieties of plants and watched his seeds and cuttings get cultivated by the state's largest growers, who often made fortunes off his fruitful bending but gave him little in return.

The first time my grandfather recounted his journey out of genocide to me, it was no wonder he never talked about the Statue of Liberty or the first skyscrapers rising out of the prairie or the great expanse of salt desert that had called the Mormons west. From the straits of the Bosporus to the edge of California, America did not register to him. Then his train found the mountain where the Donner Party got trapped in a bad winter's storm and had to resort to cannibalism, the same mountain the Chinese railroad workers had dug through to make transcontinental travel possible before a grateful California called for their exclusion. As the engine descended into a valley knifed by two giant rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, my grandfather finally glimpsed the country his uncle had written about. Outside his window, beneath the snowy caps of the Sierra, the earth shimmered. Vineyards and orchards and vegetable fields, row after perfect row. "Just like the old land," he kept muttering in Armenian.

He would soon figure out that it was nothing like the old land. This was fertility supercharged by irrigation and the science of the Agricultural College at the University of California—the most extensive and intensive farming experiment in the world. No other landscape in history had been so bent by the designs of man. The Great Central Valley, 450 miles long and 60 miles wide, had resembled in its natural state a rolling savanna not unlike the Serengeti. Then a man named Porteous invented the Fresno Scraper, a five-foot-wide hunk of sheet iron that revolutionized the movement of dirt. The scraper reconfigured the valley field by field, leveling hillocks and hog wallows and filling in gulches, a huge continuous flattening that allowed the waters of irrigation to move like a cue ball across green felt. The mining of gold, after all, had been the mining of river water first. This, though, was a magnitude of extraction never seen. The state and federal water projects that would dam the major rivers and carve out an aqueduct to move snowmelt from one end of California to the other had yet to be built. But already, farmers from Fresno to Kern counties had erected a webwork of levees and ditches that corralled nearly all of the flow of their local rivers—in the name of growing specialty crops. Who could blame them? By 1920, the Golden State was producing 57 percent of the nation's oranges, 70 percent of its prunes and plums, more than 80 percent of its grapes and virtually all of its raisins, apricots, almonds, walnuts, and olives.

The farmers were gritty and brave and not a little greedy. They weren't satisfied with the flow of the rivers alone. With the advent of the turbine pump, they were now mining the ancient groundwater stored deep in the earth. Across Tulare County, farmers counted 739 pumps in 1909. A decade later, the pumps numbered 3,758. This extraction was causing the water table to plummet 10 feet a year in many spots. Strangely, the land itself was sinking, first in inches and then in feet. The sound of earth's subsidence was silence. The sound that greeted my grandfather upon his arrival in raisin town was anything but. In the hardpan of northwest Fresno, Jesse Clayton Forkner, half farmer, half real estate buccaneer, was blasting the earth to plant the world's biggest garden of figs—600,000 trees. "The whole town was booming," my grandfather recalled. "I thought it was an earthquake. And then I thought, 'I'm in the middle of war again.' Boom. Boom. The ground shook. It was dynamite. Blast after blast. They were bombing the earth. They were planting figs. The Kadota. Luscious and golden yellow. And the new variety, the Calimyrna."

Jack Pandol Jr. is continuing his father's legacy through the creation of new hybrid grapes that prioritize flavor over color or size.

Jack Pandol Jr. is continuing his father's legacy through the creation of new hybrid grapes that prioritize flavor over color or size.

On a hot summer day almost a century later, I stand in a vineyard on the east side of the valley to behold a new realm of California bending, an example of what historian Kevin Starr liked to call the infinite "reinventions of the dream." The vineyard belongs to Jack Pandol Jr., whose father was considered a legend in these parts for the way he marketed California grapes to the world and went after Cesar Chavez and his campesinos during the labor strikes and grape boycotts of the 1960s. The old man died in 2010, and the table grapes his son now grows aren't Flames or Red Globes or Crimsons or any of the other usual varieties. These grapes emerged from a test tube in a lab inside the old Delano farmhouse where his grandfather and grandmother used to live. Pandol will tell you that they are like no other grapes anyone has ever eaten, and that may be true. One of the varieties is a hybrid of two distinct species—East Coast father, West Coast mother—and tastes like cotton candy. Fat, green, and seedless, it actually goes by the name Cotton Candy and carries 30 percent more sugar than a conventional grape. The other grape, Sweet Celebration, seedless and red, is a genetic freak of a different derivation. It was bred by combining the strongest traits inside a single species of grapes commonly found in the United States and Europe. Breeding, though, is only half the trick of altering the taste and durability of these grapes. The other half is the way Pandol tends to his berries right up to the moment they're picked. All through spring and summer, he's been pumping calcium into the tissues of both varieties to boost their natural flavors and enhance their ability to ward off fungal disease.

"The biggest problem with this vineyard is water," he explains. "Not only the lack of it but the quality. It's high in sodium. So we use calcium in the drip irrigation system. I happen to believe that calcium is one of the most overlooked ingredients in growing good fruit. We've way overdone nitrogen. Nitrogen pumps up the fruit to unbelievable sizes because it blows it up with water. Nitrogen may be great for corn in the Midwest, but it kills the flavor of a grape in California. Calcium, by contrast, kicks out a grape that tastes sweet and smooth on the tongue. And it strengthens the cell walls so the skin doesn't break open and rot the whole vineyard."

Pandol is an average-sized guy with green eyes and blond hair that's begun receding since he hit middle age, like his dad's did. His build isn't quite as stocky, and he has only a hint of his old man's sweetly tough face. He says he more resembles the Zaninovich side of his mom's tribe, though who knows what a full-blooded Slav should look like given the roads that have crossed Croatia for 2,500 years. His father's father left the vineyards on the island of Hvar more than a century ago and farmed this same valley dirt. He outlasted drought, flood, and pests with little more than sulfur dust at his side. He used to tell his grandsons, "Learn from your mistakes, but don't go to school all your life."

As soon as a grape starts to ripen, it's on a fast track to perish. Trouble in a vineyard begins with the microscopic, but it doesn't stay that way for very long. If moisture gets out of hand, the skin on a berry cracks open, and filaments of fungus rot the whole cluster in a hurry. Many of the interventions Pandol employs during the growing season have to do with keeping the clusters free from mold and mildew. There's no fruit more bent and coddled by human hands than the table grape—and that doesn't count Pandol's genetic tampering. What's done in the name of fighting fungus isn't any more of a stretch than what's done to pump up size, color, and yield. Crews of workers thin the leaves to allow more air to flow through the berries. They apply sulfur dust and a steady dose of fungicides. Most table grape growers, attuned to the lurk of mold and mildew, harvest their grapes on the early side. Pandol, who may be the most picky table grape grower in California, which is to say the nation, wants to maximize flavor. He'll hold his fruit on the vine until it reaches peak taste and only then call in his picking crews. For a couple extra points on the sugar register, a measure known as Brix, he'll even risk a week of 105-degree weather.

So much fruit hangs on the vine that the whole place feels swollen. Pandol steps under the canopy of cane and leaves, a gable-roofed trellis system he borrowed from South African grape growers because it maximizes both sun and shade. His boots sink into the earth made spongy by all the compost he's spread. For too long, he says, grape farmers have treated soil like dirt. He's found over the years that the more fertile the earth—the more potent its microbial matter—the stronger and more flavorful his grapes turn out to be.

"The way it's looking with this crop," he tells me, "we're going to pull off something in the range of 1,500 to 1,800 boxes an acre."

"How does that compare to the old days?"

"When I first got out of school, growing those old varieties with the old T-trellis system, watering by furrow instead of drip, we were probably averaging 500 to 600 boxes of grapes an acre. We've tripled production. My dad was using five acre-feet of water for every acre. We're using three acre-feet."

His father was a big-hearted man who loved nothing more than cooking for large gatherings of people, feeding his famous mostaccioli with meaty Slav-style sauce to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, among others. For Jack Jr., the family cooking gene morphed into a fascination with how science might join art to tease out different flavors in the vineyard. What if he could create shapes and flavors that had never existed before and let each cluster ripen to its fullest? Not the 16 or 18 on the Brix sugar scale that most grapes reach but 20 to 24 Brix. "Farmers in California, my family included, have been going down one road for at least the last 60 years," he explains. "The way we breed fruit isn't for taste but for shipping. The way we grow fruit isn't for the tongue but for the eye. We harvest early so the fruit doesn't go soft by the time it reaches the market. What does it matter that it tastes like wet cardboard?"

Talk to most growers and supermarket buyers, and they'll tell you that the consumer wants fruit that's big and colorful. Flavor is an afterthought at best. But Pandol says that's outdated thinking. Foodies demand flavor. The lack of it is why so many people have stopped eating fruit, or why they buy it once a season but not twice. It's why tens of thousands of acres of peaches and plums, apricots and nectarines are being bulldozed across the valley. He yanks a few berries off a vine and hands them to me. They're fat and colorful, like the grapes they sell at the supermarket. I bite down, and they're crunchy too. But they don't taste like a supermarket grape. They taste like the sunbaked Thompson seedless grapes that my father and grandfather used to grow. Sweet but not syrupy sweet. Then another flavor, one I'm not prepared for, takes over.

"Wow. Those are really good."

He smiles and nods. "We want you to say, 'Wow.' That's the response we’re looking for. And if that sensation on your tongue triggers a recollection of you walking down the midway of the county fair as a kid and eating cotton candy, all the better."

Most grapevines in California and Europe belong to the species Vitis vinifera, a hardy type that produces a single crop of fruit each year and reaches peak production between the ages of five and 20 years. Plenty of recessive genes exist in the family to endow the children with endless variations. This allows a breeder to play all sorts of fun genetic games, crossing a Cabernet Franc with a Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, and creating a Cabernet Sauvignon. What if the goal, however, is to create a table grape that does a better job of resisting drought or mildew or, daresay, tastes like spun sugar with a hint of vanilla? What if the only way to steal such properties is to reach outside the species and hunt in the gene pool of a different species? Say a Concord grape from Vitis labrusca, a clan native to the Northeast with large seeds and tough skins but also flavors and aromas that can be almost exotic? This requires a different scale of rending, techniques known in the trade as hand emasculation and embryo rescue, that might make Luther Burbank wonder what exactly he set in motion more than a century ago when he bred the Santa Rosa plum.

To create the Cotton Candy berry, Pandol's plant breeder, David Cain, reached out to the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, where the resident fruit breeder had been collecting different hybrids and species of grapes since 1964. Cain knew who his female was going to be. She was a Princess grape from California, a fat green berry with a nice crunch and the faint flavor of Old World Muscat. For its mate, he combed through the storehouse in Arkansas and chose grains of pollen with Concord grape lineage (think Welch's juice) plus five different wild species indigenous to North America. He waited for the spring blooming of the Princess vine and pulled its male parts off the flowers. This emasculation left its ovary, part of the pistil, without a sex partner. Cain then introduced the pollen shipped out from Arkansas—horticulture's version of a stud. The mating of the two, a dab of pollen applied with an artist's brush, produced hundreds of green berries, and those berries produced row after row of spindly plants.

Cotton Candy was standing in the middle of the test plot, row 48, vine 221, Cain recalls, when it began to fruit in 2005. He popped the first ripe berry into his mouth and wasn't sure what to make of the flavor. "I wasn't looking to create a grape that tasted like cotton candy," he tells me. "I kept saying it was burnt sugar, a caramel flavor. I wasn't sure how other people would react to it. One of the workers took some bunches home to his family, and his kids loved it. They said it tasted like cotton candy. That sounded as good a description as any."

In the decade since Pandol introduced Cotton Candy, more than 50,000 acres of his genetically flavored varieties have been planted in the San Joaquin Valley and around the world. Growers pay him a licensing fee and a 5 percent royalty on sales and must adhere to certain quality controls and acreage limits to keep the market from glutting up. From field to lab to licensing to the growing, it's a model his father would scarcely recognize. "All this genetic breeding aside, my father would probably say we're returning to the old way. To flavor. We've forgotten that what brings people back to fruit is taste, the memory of taste."

We climb into Pandol's 4Runner and carve a path through layers of valley dust suspended in the air. We arrive back at his headquarters, a big white industrial complex skirted by vines and palm trees. Workers are stacking boxes of warm berries onto pallets and tying them down for a stay in cold storage. He throws a couple bags of Cotton Candy into my back seat and tells me to enjoy them. I leave Delano in the throes of harvest, wondering if agriculture is now doing to fruit what it has already done to soil, river, aquifer, and man. I ponder the old Plant Wizard laid to rest under the big cedar of Lebanon at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa, only for the cedar to die of root rot. How fancy can a table grape get? How far can Jack Pandol Jr. take the sunrise and sprinkle it with dew? How much more can he push grapes to sugar before they become not "nature's candy" but confectioner's candy? I expect the obesity police will soon be on the prowl for his Gum Drops, Brix 26. He isn't taking taste back to memory, they'll say. He is using science to create new tastes that obliterate memory. He's now hired a molecular geneticist out of Cornell University to identify exactly which genes in a given cultivar express the traits of mildew resistance or extra yield or that citrusy flavor on the back end. He believes the ability of molecular science to single out these markers will guarantee more precision when he tailors his next generation of flavored grapes.

As he powers forward in his vision, he seems not unlike the artificial intelligence boys in Silicon Valley moving forward in theirs, with a belief that the pursuit alone is cleansing. This is not to say that he hasn't given thought to its implications. Obesity and diabetes, if you don't count meth and opioids, are the two great robbers of life in this valley. But each harvest season, as Pandol samples his fruit and gains five pounds, he comforts himself with the knowledge that fresh fruit, for all its sugar, delivers healthy phenols for the heart. He reminds himself that candy has been stealing flavors from fruit since candy began, and when fruit turns around and does the same, it can be a slippery slope. Fruit isn't candy, he knows, nor should it try to be. But while he respects the line between the two, he isn't precisely sure where to draw it. As I approach a stinky dairy outside McFarland, I reach into the bag of grapes, yank a Cotton Candy off the stem and pop it into my mouth. I pop another and another. The line, my tongue tells me, already has been crossed.

This piece was adapted from the book The Dreamt Land © 2019 by Mark Arax, published by Knopf on May 21st, 2019.