California's Central Valley
NPR Series Profiles the State's 'Backstage' Rural Breadbasket
Learn more about the series, and listen to each of the reports.
Detail from "Fruit Stand"
Photo: Stephen Johnson/The Great Central Valley Project
View full image
California's Central Valley stretches 400 miles from north to south.
Map: Katie Parker, NPR Online
View larger map
California's Central Valley, By the Numbers
Counties considered part of the Central Valley: 18.
The valley is approximately 400 miles long (about the distance from Chicago to Pittsburgh), typically 40 to 60 miles wide. It would take about eight hours to drive from Redding, at the northern end, to Bakersfield.
The San Joaquin Valley, comprising just eight of the southernmost counties of the Central Valley, is larger than 10 U.S. states.
Population, 2000 (estimated): 5.5 million. In comparison, the population of Los Angeles alone is 9.3 million. After decades of brisk growth, metropolitan Sacramento -- the Central Valley's most populous urban area -- still has less than half the population today that Los Angeles County had in 1940.
Despite the valley's agricultural reputation, only about 12.3 percent of Central Valley employees overall work in agriculture. In a few counties, however, that number approaches 40 percent.
Nearly three-quarters of Central Valley land is privately owned. For California overall, about half of the land is owned or controlled by the government, especially the federal government.
Most Central Valley counties have higher rates of poverty than the statewide average. Almost all Central Valley counties exceed the state unemployment average, some by two or three times.
Source: State of California
Nov. 11-14, 2002 -- Most Americans, and the rest of the world, would describe California by its popular tourist destinations and economic touchstones: Hollywood, Disneyland, the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur, Venice Beach, Silicon Valley.
But there is another California, and it's home to the greatest garden in the world. The 400-mile-long Central Valley supplies fully one-quarter of the food America eats. It's a long, mostly flat and incredibly fertile pocket of land nestled between the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada range.
There are no marquee destinations, only sober, business-first cities and vast stretches of farmland and cattle range. But the Central Valley is beginning to change rapidly.
Families looking for lower-cost housing in California's inflated housing market are trading a three-hour commute to work for a little country space and serenity -- and once-fertile fields are being paved over to make way for subdivisions. Farmers are under increasing pressure to reduce their dependence on chemicals for higher crop yields. And amid all this change, there is a huge Latino population -- many of them illegal immigrants -- whose lack of economic mobility impedes their assimilation into the American melting pot.
In a series of four reports, NPR's Richard Gonzales and John McChesney profile the promise and pitfalls waiting for the Central Valley as more and more people and businesses discover the "other California:"
Part One: The Central Valley's Identity Crisis
California's Central Valley is growing fast and its biggest industry, agriculture, racked up $27 billion in revenues last year. Yet the Central Valley is often referred to as the "other California" or California's "backyard," and the valley's inhabitants are acutely aware that they do not share in the glamour of Hollywood or Silicon Valley. As the population of the valley's cities grows and agriculture's power shrinks, the region's identity crisis has become more acute. Many in the agricultural community have a defensive posture toward the coastal cities -- even while the valley's new urban centers are pushing for a share in the cultural and economic success of the coast. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
View a photo gallery for Part One.
Part Two: The Problem with Pesticides
California's Central Valley is the most dynamic agricultural region in the world, yet farmers there are under tremendous pressure from new valley residents relocated from the coast and environmentalists to clean up their act. For decades, farmers have been exempted from clean air and clean water standards that apply to other industries. But now, the state says it is going to bring them into compliance. It's the water standards that have the farmers most worried -- farmers spray on the valley floor a third of all the pesticides sold in the nation. If they have to cut back, farmers warn that prices of tomatoes, pistachios and the 300 other crops grown in the valley will be more expensive. NPR's John McChesney reports.
View a photo gallery for Part Two.
Part Three: Central Valley, Going Organic?
Some farmers in California's Central Valley say they have seen the writing on the wall, and have started efforts to grow without a huge dependence on chemicals. State officials are demanding that farms, exempted for decades, begin to comply with clean air and clean water standards. The birthplace of modern agribusiness, the Central Valley supplies a quarter of the nations' foodstuffs and sets trends for farming nationwide. So when big farms like Muir Glenn tomatoes "go organic," it not only cuts down California water pollution, but it also provides a testbed for the viability of large-scale organic farming. But as NPR's John McChesney reports, going organic is not that easy.
View a photo gallery for Part Three.
Part Four: Farm Labor and Illegal Immigration
In 1949, historian and journalist Carey McWilliams wrote, "The farm labor problem is the cancer which lies beneath the beauty, richness, and fertility" of the Central Valley. More than 50 years later, McWilliams would probably come to the same conclusion. By the most conservative estimates, 50 percent of the valley's farm laborers are illegal immigrants -- other estimates run as high as 90 percent. Despite farm labor laws, workers are still subject to sub-minimum wages and dangerous working conditions. Whole towns are virtual labor camps aptly described as "California's Appalachia." The region is home to a multi-generational underclass of low-skilled, poorly educated workers and their families. But unlike immigrants of the past, these workers show no sign of being absorbed into an economic track that will improve their lives.
View a photo gallery for Part Four.
The New California -- All Things Considered presents a four-part series on the changing demographics in California. Immigrants from Latin America and Asia are forcing the state to come to terms with diversity on an unprecedented scale. August 2002.
The Great Central Valley Project, a book by photographers Stephen Johnson and Robert Dawson and author Gerald Haslam, tracks the human imprint on the huge agricultural area.
The Great Valley Center is a not-for-profit organization "to support organizations and activities that benefit the economic, social and environmental well-being of California’s Great Central Valley" through grants and other financial support.
Statistics about the Central Valley provided by the State of California.