An Overview of Monterey County Agriculture

by MaryEllen Ryan and Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

The agricultural history of the overview area represents an interweaving of economic, technological and sociological factors within the contect of natural features such as climate, soils, topography, and water. The relative importance of crops changed in response to political forces such as wars and immigration policies, to social customs such as shifts in food preferences and habits, and to technological changes in farming practices. Above all, transportation and access to markets brought profound changes to crop choices and farm locations.

Although the bottomlands, plains, and foothills were host to different forms of agriculture through time, the entire coast valley area followed a general pattern with local variations. Following the mission-supported agricultural holdings of the Hispanic period, in which grains and selected row crops were planted in large irrigated fields, the American entrepreneur experimented with rapid producers such as potatoes to supply the gold fields. Crop selection was based on minimal labor and space requirements in the early 1850s, and ease of transport was a major consideration. This initial experimentation period was followed by acquisition of suitable lands for dry-farming grains in the 1860s and 1870s, and shifted into large-scale grain farming made possible by rail access to markets and technological advances in the 1880s. The wheat heyday was followed by a shift to intensive horticulture, made possible by the introduction of transient labor.

Wheat and Grain

The Salinas River Valley, 75 miles in length from its broad mouth at Monterey Bay to its southern closure near San Ardo, consists of sedimentary bottomland and alluvial terraces along each side. The river has been referred to as the "Upside-Down River" as it flows from south to north and is contained completely underground through much of its course during the dry months. Rainfall is seasonal, as it is over the entire overview area, and the summers are cooled by fog near the valley mouth while summers in the upper valley are intensely hot and dry.

Farming during the Hispanic Period was limited by both the size and distribution of the population and by the singular emphasis of the economic base of the period, stockraising for the hide and tallow trade. The agricultural population of 780 persons living outside Monterey City in 1850 was scattered over the county on land grants, which covered nearly all of the valley area, but had little monetary value. Stockraising required large quantities of land, imposing a pattern of sparse settlement across the new country. Cattle thrived with little or no attention. Nearly the whole unfenced expanse of the Salinas Valley, as well as the several smaller valleys, was grazed by herds that were descendants of the original stock which had been driven up from Mexico for the missions. Sheep had been brought into Alta California along with the cattle, and the herds had attained considerable size at some of the missions. However, they played a very small role in rancho economy. Cultivation of the soil was very limited. Small plots were fenced from the free-ranging cattle, and methods of tillage were primitive. Wooden plows with iron-tipped points scratched rather than turned the soil, and harrowing was accomplished by dragging large branches of trees over the ground. The ripened grain was cut with hand sickles and bound into sheaves. Threshing was usually done by piling the grain in a circular enclosure and driving a band of mustangs over it. After removing the straw, the grain and chaff were tossed in the air with a shovel to allow the wind to blow away the chaff. Most of the grinding was done with an arastra, a mill consisting of two horizontal flat stones, one stationary and the other made to rotate upon the first by power supplied by a horse or mule.

Little change in the methods of production or in the type of products had occurred since early settlement in the 1820s and 1830s. The valley areas had been gradually settled and stocked with cattle. The annual production of hides and tallow could by traded for necessities not produced on the rancho. The economy was a very stable one.

The discovery of gold in 1848 acted upon this relatively stable situation with the force of an electric shock. In less than two years the population of the state changed from a few scattered self-contained units to a predominance of males composed almost exclusively of miners. Not only were the tens of thousands of newcomers intent upon reaching the gold fields, but the vast majority of men engaged in other pursuits in the towns and settlements of the new country left jobs and crops unattended. Food and other supplies had to be imported from distant places, and there was a severe shortage of labor in every locality. The high prices prevailing at San Francisco attracted large shipments of commodities, and soon glutted the market with flour, beans, tobacco, and lumber. Goods were left to rot on deserted vessels, and perishables were thrown from warehouses into the streets. The market fluctuated dramatically from year to year until additional warehouses could be built and Atlantic shippers learned to be more cautious with consignments to the west coast.

The period from 1849 to 1858 was a prosperous one for the rancheros. With practically no change in their methods of stockraising, their incomes were multiplied by several times. Cattle raising became an industry--they were no longer slaughtered for their hides, but were driven on the hoof to market by drovers employed by San Francisco firms. These prosperous days for the rancheros were relatively shortlived, though, as the market soon became overstocked with beef, and the quality of cattle imported from Missouri was more attractive to buyers than the rangy Spanish black cattle. This condition was followed by a severe drought in 1862-1864 that effectively destroyed all stock that had not been driven to the interior valley lakes or the high Sierra. The rancheros, with their lands heavily mortgaged to compensate the losses, began to subdivide lands that were held in clear title, while the Homestead Act made adjacent lands available to incoming settlers.

Many of the incoming settlers had been involved in grain farming near San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley. In addition to this pool of experienced farmers, the disruption of markets and transportation lines by the Civil War provided a second encouragement to grain farming on the old rancho lands. Grain was grown commercially in Monterey County as early as 1852 on the Salinas plains, but in fact most lands in the overview area that would have been suitable for grains were still under the undisputed ownership of the older Hispanic families.

The necessity for fencing land against free ranging cattle was a retarding influence on the spread of grain farming. Fencing was prohibitively expensive in the early settlement period, as barbed wire had not yet been invented and labor was scarce. As settlement and neighbors increased both the capital burden and the labor could be shared. The Monterey County assessor reported in 1867 that 7,000 acres of land had been enclosed in two years, and that 11,000 acres had been put into production. He noted that the improvements had taken place on former ranchos that had been subdivided and rented out in lots of 100 acres, and that the lower Salinas Valley was the location of most of the new farming activity.

A second obstacle to the prospective grain farmer in the Salinas Valley was the lack of rail transportation for market access. The need for local consumption was very small, and after 1866 most products were shipped out of the area from Moss Landing at the mouth of the Salinas Valley via the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. An attempt was made to barge grain down the Salinas River during the same period of time, but this did not prove feasible. The extension of the Southern Pacific Railroad southward from San Francisco was an important factor in the development of the upper and middle Salinas Valley. The line reached San Jose in 1864, Gilroy in 1869, Pajaro in 1871, Salinas in 1872, and Soledad in 1873. It went no further until 1886, and farmers in the San Antonio and Jolon Valleys in southern Monterey County hauled grain by wagon to Soledad or San Miguel to reach a market. The short narrow gauge line between Monterey and Salinas (the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad) provided access to shipping during 1874. As it had done elsewhere when competition appeared, Southern Pacific lowered its rates and bought out the foundering short line. Moss Landing continued to hold its importance as a grain shipping center even after Southern Pacific had penetrated the heart of the wheat growing country, mostly because of an independent farmer reaction to the monopolistic policies of the railroad company.

An important feature in the expansion of grain acreage was the development of machinery that made possible the cultivation of large acreages with a minimum of labor. California offered physical conditions particularly suited to the use of such machinery, and labor for traditional methods was scarce. Hand reaping was replaced by horse-drawn harvesters built by McCormick, Manny, and others by 1859. Advertisers bragged that the new harvester could enter a field of grain in the morning and by nightfall 25 acres would have been mowed, thrashed, cleaned, and sacked. The header that came into use about 1860 was especially useful in the dry California climate. While first the wire binder and later the twine binder were being perfected for use in humid regions, the header became the usual harvesting machine here. In 1880 the wheat harvest in California was accomplished chiefly with twelve-foot headers, with six horses or mules to each header, and one such header could cut 15 to 25 acres per day. Several improvements were made in threshing machines during the 1850s and 1860s, and steam power gradually replaced horse power in their operations during the following two decades. In 1880 steam threshers that burned wheat straw for fuel were in general use throughout California.

Barley had always been an important feed grain in California, to some extent taking the place filled by corn in certain other regions. It was important first for draft animals and later in meat production. Since oxen, horses, and mules furnished most of the tractive power and even much of the stationary power during the period under consideration, the demand for feed for draft animals was considerable. Since the markets for feed barley were near at hand and those for wheat at a greater distance, transportation developments increased the relative advantage of wheat production and allowed it to surpass barley in volume. The exports of barley during this period were relatively insignificant. Some barley was used within the county for brewing, but little was shipped to other potential markets, as the climate was not considered suitable for the production of brewing barley.

During the 1880s, two flouring mills were in operation in the county. One was constructed at Salinas in 1883, with a capacity of 35 barrels, later remodeled to a capacity of 500 barrels a day. The second was located at King City, and had a daily capacity of 150 barrels.

Irrigation in Monterey County

The use of irrigation enabled a substantial shift from grain farming to row crops in the Salinas Valley towards the turn of the century. Irrigation was far from new, as both Soledad and San Antonio mission made extensive use of irrigated fields before secularization reduced their labor supply to a few resident elders. There was little incentive for development of irrigation during the American period of stockraising, and even when agricultural societies emerged in the growing state irrigation was a hotly debated issue with few supporters. In 1890, the Monterey County assessor noted that irrigation was practiced only on a small scale, and all of the irrigated plots were on acreage adjacent to the Salinas River or natural springs and rivulets.

The history of irrigation technology in the Salinas Valley began with the gravity systems of the missions, and was followed by the construction of diversion ditches in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The first large claim was made in 1882 by M. Brandenstein, the founder of San Ardo. Brandenstein constructed the six mile San Bernardo and Salinas Valley Canal and Irrigation Company canal to irrigate alfalfa. Seventy claims to water from the Salinas River and its tributaries were filed prior to 1901. Only a fraction of them were followed by actual use of the water, and then the amount claimed was usually far beyond the capacity of headgates and ditches. In many cases more than one filing was made for the same claim in order to keep it alive until work could be done. Claims were made on the flow of the Arroyo Seco, San Lorenzo, and the San Antonio, in addition to the Salinas River. Problems of controlling the spring floods and preserving diversion dams and ditches caused considerable difficulty at first. Gravity irrigation was simply not a reliable form of water supply for the growing demands of the county, and there were experiments with other methods such as storage ponds and pumping stations.

The introduction of steam powered pumps coincided with the establishment of the Spreckels Beet Refinery near Salinas in 1897. The plant supplied irrigation waste water to its nearby beet fields, and as its technology was perfected the use of pumping plants increased elsewhere in the valley. The Soledad Land and Water Company irrigated 800 acres with a pumping plant near the Old Soledad Mission, and the Salvation Army Colony at Fort Romie was supplied with 8,000 gallons per minute. Smaller plants were in use by farmers not associated with Spreckels, such as that of Domingo Breschini, who irrigated alfalfa on a 500 acre parcel on the Las Salinas Rancho, and those operating a small plant at Buena Vista Rancho on the overview area border. Pumping directly from the river proved unsatisfactory, especially for alfalfa since it needed water in the summer. Experimentation with underground water supplies was the next step in irrigation technology.

One of the earliest wells was put down in 1898 just south of Gonzales. Spreckels also worked with developing deep well technology for its beet fields, and by 1904 had several 70 foot wells in operation replacing the river and storage pond supplies. By 1910 gravity irrigation and direct river pumping were still depended upon to a great degree, but irrigation pumps from deep wells supplied a steadily increasing acreage. By 1929, row crops then dominant over any type of grain were completely dependent upon deep wells, and concerns were expressed that the annual drain on the underground water supply was greater than the normal replacement, and would result in serious consequences to well dependent users in the future.

Row Crops

The sugar beet industry in Monterey County was the first type of intensive farming to bring changes that would profoundly affect land use, labor and settlement. Encouraged in Europe since the close of the eighteenth century, beets were not considered an alternative to cane sugar in the United States until the early 1890s. In 1890, a sugar tariff was imposed on cane sugar imports, and a bounty was granted on all domestically produced sugar. The tariff and bounty were adjusted frequently through 1913, encouraging domestic production. In 1898, the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized experimental sugar beet growing. Production was stymied for a time by a lack of technological expertise in the extraction process. The industry was well developed in Europe, and it was from Germany that Claus Spreckels came in 1897 to begin a sugar beet industry in Monterey County.

Spreckels had previously operated sugar beet plantations and refineries in Hawaii and Watsonville (Santa Cruz County). The success of the industry was totally dependent on contracted growers and a large body of low-wage laborers. These needs had a tremendous effect on tenancy and colonization of agricultural lands in the county, and greatly influenced the ethnic makeup of the Salinas Valley. The Spreckels operation was actively involved in share farming and massive employment of contracted Chinese labor. The operations in Monterey County did not experience gradual growth, but were put in place in the form of a fully planned town and plant, with company owned farms scattered from Salinas to King City. Spreckels did most of the pioneer work in irrigation technology in the county, paving the way for more efficient use of the seasonally scarce water supply that had hindered intensive farming efforts up to this time. Beets, however, were eventually replaced by row crops which had a higher value per acre as sugar prices dropped and farmers sought a more direct involvement with potential markets.

Dry beans had been grown in Monterey County from the beginning of American settlement, and had been a staple under mission cultivation as well. The stimulation of bean production grew out of high prices during World War I, and bean acreage doubled in the United States between 1914 and 1918. A price decline at the end of the War brought about a sharp reduction in acreage, releasing some land not particularly suited to bean growing under normal market conditions for other types of production. Beans were found to be a valuable crop to use in rotation with beets, barley, and other non-legumes. Production increased with their use in irrigated fields, and became concentrated in areas around Salinas and King City by the late 1920s.

A phenomenal expansion in lettuce production took place in the decade from 1920-1930. Production for eastern markets began in 1922, and by 1930 lettuce accounted for almost half the gross returns to the county from farm products. The resulting increase in total farm income was reflected in a substantial growth in population and various forms of activity incident to its support. The need for seasonal field labor was firmly established with the shift to intensive single crop production. Where irrigation systems were established, lettuce growing began in fields which had previously been used for beet production. By 1930, a permanent shift in agricultural production to corporate owners and large operators who packed and shipped as well as grew the crop had taken place in the county.

Other crops and livestock products grown in commercial quantities in the county prior to 1930 included commercial orchards, which began with planting in the sandy hills in the 1890s. Since 1905, commercial plantings of apricots, almonds, peaches, apples, and pears had been made in the district between Soledad and King City. Their production had reached only 5 percent of all farm products by 1932. In 1930 there were 149 poultry farms in the county, accounting for 3 percent of farm products value. Artichokes, an important field crop in Monterey County, were contained entirely north of the overview area. Guayule production, a fascinating but shortlived enterprise instigated by the War Department and the Department of Agriculture began in 1922 in the northern part of the valley, but succumbed to political and trade pressures shortly after the start of World War II.

The Dairy Industry

The dairy industry developed from a slow start following the introduction of dairy stock by American farmers in the early 1860s. Prior to this time, the milk cows kept by the rancheros contributed very little to an available supply outside the needs of the individual ranchos. Commercial dairying was attempted during the Gold Rush to supply the growing demand for fresh milk and cheese, but with little success. Cheese production increased greatly after 1868 on family farms, and was taken over by creamery operations in 1901. The increase and success of the dairy industry in Monterey as well as other California counties was due to the industry dominance by Portugese and Swiss dairy operators in the 1880s, who rented plots from large landowners to get a start in the valley, and continuously increased their holdings and production. The introduction of alfalfa as a feed is directly related to the expansion of the dairy industry. Many early irrigation efforts were the result of a shift to alfalfa growing, with the concentration in Monterey County taking place in the mid-valley areas near Gonzales. The evaporated milk industry became established in the county at Gonzales and Cobern, near King City, in the 1920s.

A tremendous amount of additional information on agriculture will be presented in the Society's book, America's Salad Bowl: An Agricultural History of the Salinas Valley, by Burton Anderson.


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