The CBS film crew had dodged a hurricane in New York, flown cross-country, gotten up too early, and were now setting up in a field of knee-high bean plants in Coachella. The members of the crew were about to be jarred out of their jet lag by a wonder of the Coachella Valley — and it wasn’t any of the usual wonders we rely on to dazzle visitors.
The attraction in this case was dawn in a bean field. The rising sun cast deeply corrugated shadows on the Chocolate Mountains to the north. The sky turned right-out-of-the-paint-box blue, and the bean rows lit up with geometric patterns repeating into the far distance. The crew — filming a segment for the popular Sunday Morning show — was no longer tired, but giddy. “Perfect!” “Perfect!” they exclaimed.
Morning in the east valley is a sight to stir the weariest traveler. Yet most visitors miss the pageant, as do locals. In the valley’s early days, almost everyone had ties to agriculture (the aquifer supplied water before the All-American canal brought Colorado River water here in the 1940s), but when tourism shifted attention to the Palm Springs region, the curtain seemingly dropped on the vast farmlands to the east.
Christy Porter, director of the Coachella-based nonprofit Hidden Harvest, says she often meets people who have lived in the desert for decades yet don’t know we grow things here. (Hidden Harvest recovers unused produce to feed low-income people.) Modern tourists may have sipped a date shake, but few have ventured past the Washington Street exit to see the endless rows of peppers, grapes, lemons, artichokes, and even garlic.
That’s partly because people don’t know where to go. While some towns have thriving agriculture tourism programs (take a tour, have a catered dinner in the fields, volunteer on a farm) there is little of that as yet in the Coachella Valley. What goes on out here is big business and serious work; you do need to have a few pointers so you don’t twist an ankle in a furrow or accidentally break an irrigation line.
The Highway 86S cutoff is your entrée to a more elemental world — “the lost groves of childhood” as artist Victor Schiro puts it. One reason to take a look: More and more people want to know where their food comes from. “If you see the work that goes into a cauliflower from seedling to harvest, you’ll wonder why it doesn’t cost $10,” Porter says.
While local foods and “know your farmer” campaigns are a national trend, you don’t have to like farmers markets (or even vegetables) to appreciate the agrarian valley. The sounds, smells, and sights of farming have appealed to humans throughout time, veggie lovers or not. Artists and photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, and Agnes Pelton have long recognized the beauty in the fields, as well as in the dates and peppers themselves.
It’s also not necessary to be a fan of crop reports. It’s true the business of agriculture is a mainstay of the valley — second only to tourism — but you don’t have to know we’re the prime date growing region in the country to enjoy an afternoon in Mecca. Ag business is separate from the appeal of a dusty grape, a shiny red pepper, or an historic packing shed.
“There are things out here nobody knows,” Porter reveals. The fieldworkers pick corn at night because by day the plants are insanely itchy. The workers sing in the grapes and eat hot soup from thermoses when it’s 115 degrees. The salt that leaches naturally atop the land is called “white snow.” Some tractors these days are steered by GPS.
Consider this your invitation to find secrets yourself. The “If You Go” information on page 34 points you to places like Thermal, Oasis, and Mecca. The farmers ask only that you remember these are working farms; please avoid walking in the rows or touching the produce, as it can harm a tiny seedling on its way to becoming an exotic carrot or humble okra.
Special thanks to pilot Jesse McKeever
If You Go
For an overview of the east valley farmlands, drive down Interstate 10 from Chiriaco summit (heading toward Palm Springs). To your left, you’ll see a patchwork quilt of row crops and date orchards, all shades and hues. This is the broadest view available, except from an airplane.
Agri-tourists coming from the western Coachella Valley, take I-10 east to the 86S expressway. This “boulevard of vegetables,” as Porter calls it, runs through the heart of the farmlands owned by major growers. Side trips east or west will give you a closer view.
For one such detour, Jeff Percy, vice president of Southern Operations at Ocean Mist Farms, suggests taking 86S to the Avenue 52 exit and heading east. Continue on Avenue 52 and turn right (south) onto Fillmore Street for up-close agri-viewing.
Riverside County has developed an “Ag Trail” map to promote agri-tourism. Visit agtrail.rivcoca.org to read about the program, and click on the “Farms” link to view the map.