Everyone has heard of farm-to-table dining. We browse the certified farmers’ markets. We shop at grocery stores with “Local!” signs dotting the produce section. We query waiters about the exact provenance of the ingredients that make up the dishes we order. But there’s still a wide fissure between the food on our plates and the people who are passionate about growing it.
That’s the gap that farming advocate Margit Chiriaco Rusche, a lifelong desert dweller, hopes to close. Her vision is to use the resources that already exist in the Coachella Valley — one of the most productive growing regions in the country — to grow support for local agriculture and cultivate the next generation of California farmers.
“We have everything available to make this dream happen,” she says.
Margit Chiriaco Rusche hopes to instill knowledge, ambition and love of the land in the next generation of Coachella Valley farmers.
The Valley’s Agricultural Roots
To understand the future of farming in the Coachella Valley, you must first understand how it began — and how remarkable it is that agriculture exists here at all.
Like many uniquely American stories, ours begins with the railroad. The United States couldn’t have grown and prospered without the help of the iron horse, allowing for the streamlined movement of materials and pushing settlements westward.
The Southern Pacific Railroad’s first steam engine chugged from Los Angeles through Indio in 1876, and the culture and landscape of the desert changed almost immediately. The railroad didn’t just bring farmers to the area, it liberated them with movement, establishing an efficient way to bring goods to markets elsewhere.
The line was completed the following year when the east-west rails were joined in Yuma, Arizona. During the same period, the government began sizing up the desert as potential farmland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s special department of agricultural explorers (think Indiana Jones, but with plants) were scouring the world for new food crops that were suitable for this region and would thrive in the desert soil.
Fruits and vegetables have flourished in tbe Coachella Valley.
The land also held a lot of promise due to the deep, massive aquifer beneath the desert floor, which extends between the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountain ranges in Palm Springs to the Salton Sea. With a deep artesian well, the pressure could send water as high as 10 feet into the air. For pioneer Coachella farmers, it was like magic.
The USDA agricultural explorers visited the Middle East. From Baghdad to Muscat, plant explorer David Fairchild filled mud-packed burlap sacks with date palm shoots and returned to our desert. (Fairchild is also responsible for bringing cherry trees to Washington, D.C., as well as introducing 200,000 other exotic plants and crops to the U.S.) Though dates were already popular in Europe, the fruit was still fairly unknown to Americans at that time. The arid conditions here seemed suitable for the plant.
“This was a big experiment,” says historian Patricia Laflin, who was raised in the Coachella Valley and has written several books about the area. “Everybody was behind spending money to make this land usable.”
It’s difficult to even imagine now, but this was an enormous risk on the part of the government at a time when the very idea of farming the desert must have sounded preposterous. Just imagine selling the concept of desert farmland to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., before the age of Google. “Desert,” after all, conjures visions of cacti and tumbleweeds, undulating sand dunes, and a gasping cartoon man struggling to reach a shimmery mirage.
The Coachella Valley became one of the nation’s winter salad bowls starting in the 1950s.
The government’s risk paid off. Fairchild’s date trees thrived in the sandy soil, launching the agriculture industry here and creating a new market for the sweet fruit. Connie Cowan, archivist for the Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center, spent her childhood playing in the date gardens of her family’s farm, Coachella Valley Fruit Company. She remembers when there was just one paved road stretching from Coachella to Indio.
“Dates were considered quite the investment at that time,” she says. “You could plant as little as five acres of dates and still make a good profit.” Soon after the turn of the 20th century, valley farming was booming. The land was inexpensive; the soil was vibrant with nutrients. Groundwater wells were plentiful, and the growing season was long. The Coachella Valley was the farming equivalent of striking gold.
More fruits and vegetables were planted, including row crops like artichokes, peppers, carrots, onions, spinach, and strawberries, many varieties of citrus, and the fruit that became one of the area’s largest moneymakers: table grapes.
Not only did farmers here enjoy a particularly long, almost year-round growing period, but they also had the benefit of a reversed season — they could get produce out to the markets when seeds weren’t even in the ground elsewhere. This region began producing the bulk of winter crops for the country, including salad greens, carrots, cantaloupe, and bell peppers.
“They couldn’t have found a better area for farming anywhere,” Laflin says. “This area was ripe, and agriculture took off.”
If anything, farming was a little too successful. As more fields were planted and groundwater levels began dropping, local farmers looked to the Colorado River for irrigation water.
In 1949, the 122-mile Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal, was unleashed, ushering river water into valley farms.
“There was this great expansion of farming in the 1950s, and that was really the boom period,” Laflin says. “You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing cotton, citrus, or grapes being planted. It was really a good time to be a farmer.”
This feat is how the valley became one of the nation’s winter salad bowls, reaping a bounty of produce while the rest of the country hunkered under frost and snow.
Ellen Way: “With transplants, there's no question for the farmer. Now every plant is going to be productive.”
Drive through the East Valley now, beyond the gated communities and big box stores, and that’s where the space between each building widens and the highway eases into a sigh. That’s where the fields open up like a warm embrace. Vines hang heavy with pale green and deep ruby-red table grapes. Dates burst with golden sweetness. Lettuces are frilly, ready to be plucked for a fancy salad. Shiny peppers burst with colors of green, yellow, orange, and red.
There are five primary economic sectors that drive the Coachella Valley: tourism, healthcare, housing, retail, and agriculture. Though tourism has become a major staple of late, particularly with high-profile events like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival, it’s the farmers who shaped the valley’s identity and established a solid economic foundation, as every dollar brought to an area by the farm economy increases overall output by $3.50. That is, every agricultural dollar earned fuels a more vigorous local economy by stimulating more spending activity.
Production here varies every year, ranging from $400 million to $600 million, depending on any number of factors, like pests, changes in temperature, soil conditions, and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather.
"There’s always feast or famine in farming,” says Ellen Way, an active member of California Women for Agriculture and a farming enthusiast. “Very rarely do we all have a profitable season all at the same time.”
Despite the drought, valley farmers have increased productive acreage by learning to do “more with less.”
Now, threatened by climate change and a historic drought, area farmers are taking steps to preserve water without compromising their livelihood. Agriculture currently accounts for roughly half of the total water use in the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), and farmers have been increasing measures toward conserving this precious natural resource for the future.
“Coachella Valley farmers have always been real leaders in efficient water use,” says John Powell Jr., board president of the CVWD. A lifelong resident of the valley, Powell is also the CEO and president of Peter Rabbit Farms, a large-scale producer of carrots, peppers, citrus, and table grapes, a business that was started by his grandfather.
Since there’s not enough rainfall here to cover the diversity of crops and their water needs, desert farmers have been forced to become innovators, according to Powell. Very few farms use the older style of irrigation — flooding the fields with deep pools of water; most have moved to drip systems that pull from shallow reservoirs instead.
“Sprinklers, drip irrigation, leveling the ground, making sure the water is used by the plant and not running off the land — we do that here,” Powell says. “Other farming areas in California haven’t made those investments into irrigation, so some places are worse off. Efficiency is expensive.”
Efficiency also works. In 1976, the Coachella Valley farmed 55,369 acres, using 366,000 acre-feet of water. In 2014, gross farmed acreage came in at nearly 70,000, using 289,000 acre-feet. “We’re doing more with less,” Powell says. “It’s a real success story.”
John Powell Jr.: “The future is good for agriculture in the Coachella Valley. We just need to hang on to our resources.”
The Future of Farming
Ellen Way navigates the streets that wend through long, rolling Coachella, Indio, and Mecca farms with ease. Her entire life has been steeped in agriculture — it’s what puts food on her family’s table — and she considers the green fields her neighbors. If anyone is passionate about growing, it’s this energetic and fast-talking blonde.
“Two things have helped us: drip irrigation, and that,” she says, pulling her vehicle to a stop on the side of the road. In the distance are the enormous greenhouses of Headstart Nursery, which house 700,000 square feet of plant seedlings. The Gilroy, California, company expanded to the desert in 1993 and has since become a leader in vegetable and fruit transplants.
The concept is similar to Head Start programs for children: This nursery provides a stable environment where little seedlings can flourish and succeed. Specializing in watermelon, celery, peppers, and other difficult-to-grow produce for commercial farmers, Headstart begins crops from seed and cares for them until the transplants are large enough to succeed in the desert fields.
“It used to be that seeds would get eaten by birds or just wouldn’t grow for one reason or another. But with transplants, there’s no question for the farmer,” Way says. “Now every plant is going to be productive.”
Such innovations are becoming the norm in commercial desert farming. Growers are using specialized software to track germination rates, monitor inventory, and verify plant counts. Other farmers use iPhone apps to check soil conditions and track water usage.
“The future is good for agriculture in the Coachella Valley. We just need to hang on to our resources,” says the CVWD’s Powell. “We’re proving this is a good place to produce a crop.”
And now, the future looks even brighter, thanks to Margit Chiriaco Rusche, the farming advocate who has a vision for the Coachella Valley.
Rusche and a group of colleagues from the local branch of California Women for Agriculture, a nonprofit for women dedicated to farming, recognize the importance of cultivating agriculture right here. For nearly three years, they have been quietly laying the groundwork for a natural resources academy at Coachella Valley High School and creating an agriculturally based curriculum.
The idea is to provide students with educational opportunities and hands-on training on a fully functioning farm. Beyond primary electives, the agriculture students will take farm-specialized courses in biology, physics, business, and nutritional sciences. Advanced classes will include farm and turf management as well as environmental, aqua-farming, and viticulture sciences.
For the young people who don’t see a future in farming, Rusche wants them to know there’s no future without it.
“If we don’t create something to keep the young people here, Coachella Valley agriculture as we know it will fall into a terrible state of disrepair,” Rusche says. “But if they know agriculture is a viable career choice, they’ll head that direction. Farming isn’t just about picking out in the fields.”
Though the academy is still in preliminary stages, at least 15 acres have been set aside to provide a joint-use haven for a number of local farms. The hope is now that when it is unveiled, it will be one of the largest and most technologically advanced agriculture programs in California.
“My dream is to see the academy built and children graduating from it,” Rusche says. “I want to see people putting down roots.”
She knows a little something about flipping desert land into something prosperous. Rusche’s father, Joseph Chiriaco, came to the desert in 1933, and his family turned a desolate hilltop into the thriving outpost of Chiriaco Summit — now home to full-time residents, the General Patton Memorial Museum, and several businesses where travelers can get gas, a burger, or a place to rest.
“[This academy] can be a model for the state and the country,” Rusche says. “We are prioritizing American-grown, quality food, and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t support that. This is a project where everybody benefits.”