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Navigating the Delta: The roots of agriculture

Lisa Morehouse
Nicholas Cotano, standing by old asparagus packing shed he used to supervise

Major California rivers drain into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and over decades of building dams and reservoirs and pumps, it’s become the major hub of California’s water system —a system that may change again if Governor Jerry Brown's controversial plans to build tunnels for water transport go through.

In 2014, after hearing so much about California's tensions over water that runs through the Delta, I got interested in the people who live and work there, and reported this series for KALW.

It’s not just the water flow that’s been transformed in the Delta.  This land used to be made up of tidal wetlands and marshes of tule grass.  Today, there are nearly 60 islands surrounded by levees, most of the land here is used for farming, and it’s some of the richest farmland in the state

Down a long road on Andrus Island in the central Delta, Kay Dix Ranch is home to pear orchards, a packing shed, a business office, and some truck storage. The man in charge here is Daniel Wilson, whose family’s farmed the Delta for generations. Wilson lives just down the road, in a house built by his grandfather almost 100 years ago.

We walk towards the orchard, past the packing facility. It’s quiet now, but in summer it buzzes with machines and people who are washing, treating, and separating pears by size, wrapping them in tissue so the delicate fruit can withstand being shipped across the country. They move several thousand tons of pears each year.

We continue on to the winter orchard, which is filled with Medusa-like pear trees. “These are Bartlett pears,” Wilson says. “This was the entire river 30 years ago. We’ve now diversified away from these trees and gotten other varieties.”

Using an age-old practice, they’ve grafted a pear called Stark Crimson onto stumps of old Bartlett trees because, Wilson says, new varietals can bring in almost twice as much money as Bartlett pears right now.

“One could say we’ve diversified away from these so much, we’re starting to say, ‘Oops, went too far,’ but that’s farming. You change varieties and see what’s profitable,” he explains.

Pears were one of the first commercial crops in the Delta. Wilson says he has trees next to his house that are at least 130 years old. “100 years ago,” he says, “Grandpa plants five different types of fruit, and pear is what lived.”   

Why have people grown pears and other crops here for so long? Wilson’s quick to answer:

“It’s good dirt, great soil, rich in nutrients. It’s close to population centers back in the day.”

A century and a half of growing

Back in the days of the Gold Rush, many of the most successful people weren’t miners, but were instead the ones who sold food and supplies to the miners.  

“You wanted to be the guy selling the shovel, not the guy digging with the shovel,” says Wilson.

While miners sought their fortunes in the hills, the state encouraged farmers to come to the Delta, and basically turn part-time swampland into full-time farmland by building levees. That’s how this area came to be what it is today.

Wilson explains, “In the 1850s they passed the Arkansas Swamp and Reclamation Act: the state will give you this land in these marshes in Arkansas and California if you give them to people, and if the people build levees and reclaim the land and turn it into productive farmland, then they can keep it. That’s when the Reclamation Districts were formed and local farmers built levees and kept water back, and that’s how agriculture developed in the Delta.”

Agricultural infrastructure looked pretty different back then. In the 1920s and ‘30s, when fruit growing really picked up, Wilson says farmers here would take pears across the island to the Sacramento River, which is about a mile away. “They would load fruit on a schooner, and the schooner would pick up on various farms and head to San Francisco.”

Labor was different, too. Today, most of the crews Wilson hires to pick and pack pears are Latino. “When I was a kid, every pear crew was from the Philippines,” he says.

Filipinos were essential to Delta agriculture, and were most famously linked with the asparagus crop.

The Delta’s Filipino heritage

At a former labor camp on nearby Twitchell Island, 93-year-old Nicholas Cotano looks out over multiple fields. “This was practically all asparagus,” he says. “All these fields right here.”

Cotano’s Portuguese mother met his Filipino father on a plantation in Hawaii, where Cotano was born. When his paternal grandfather found better work in California, most of the family came here, including a one-year-old Nicholas.

He says that, when he got older, “I supervised these fields right here as a labor contractor.”

After showing me the field, Cotano directs me to his home, which sits atop a levee. It’s stuffed with neatly-hung, perfectly-pressed clothes, along with fishing poles and old photographs. One posed portrait shows well over 100 people, almost all young men, dressed to the nines in fine suits. It was taken at a large gathering of Filipinos in Los Angeles. Cotano says they were all farmers and farm laborers in the Delta. Most Filipinos in the Delta were men. In fact, the only women and children in the image belong to Cotano’s family, due in large part to his father’s position as a labor contractor.

Cotano says his father organized crews of Filipino immigrants to move around the state, harvesting different crops. In the Delta, cutting asparagus – or “grass” – was back-breaking work.  

“They would cut more or less four acres each,” he says. “Four acres a day, which is almost impossible to do. You’d have two or three knives at a time and a stone in your hand, always sharpening your knives.”

Workers placed the hand-picked asparagus onto sleds, pulled by horses. There’s still some asparagus grown in the Delta, but for the last couple of decades, cheaper asparagus imported from Mexico has made many farmers here turn to other crops that make a higher profit and require less labor. Now, many of the fields that grew asparagus hold corn, alfalfa, and other crops that need just a combine and one driver for 100 acres.


Daniel Wilson’s one of those farmers. He gave up growing asparagus years ago, but he runs part of his business in a building connected to the crop’s history in the Delta.

“This facility you see hanging out over the water started its life as a Southern Pacific Railroad packing shed for produce, asparagus specifically,” he says. “This whole river would be covered with asparagus butts.”

Now, it’s a grain elevator, one of his family’s many business endeavors. Along with farming and grain storage, they’re in the transportation business too, shipping their own and other Delta farmers’ corn, wheat, pears, wine grapes, and olives. It’s all part of the strategy of being a successful farming family, not depending solely on pears.

“Any crop that you’re totally devoted to makes you vulnerable,” he explains. “If pears go bad – and they have, in the ‘40s, and ‘80s – you want to diversify.”

Farmers around the Delta are also trying other strategies to stay viable. There’s a huge Farmer’s Market at the intersection of two major highways that’s filled with Delta wine and produce, as well as stories about the farmers. Local businesses hand out tour maps for visitors to drive up the river and visit local farms along the way. Like Wilson, they want to keep farming here.

“We have pretty deep roots here,” says Wilson. “We farm here because we can make good money and we like the area, but I’m sure if you talked to a farmer in Dinuba or Oroville they’d tell you the same thing: Dad farmed here, Grandpa farmed here, so I’m farming here.”

Wilson’s children and nephews are involved in this business, and he sees neighbor’s kids still involved, especially on the business side. He says there’s not a lot of Big Ag here; though he sees the number of owners getting smaller, and their operations getting bigger, there are still few if any widely held corporations involved in farming in the Delta.  

“It’s a complicated area to survive in,” he says. “You have to take care of the levees, take care of the drainage, and we’re regulated a lot more than other areas.”  

Every farmer I talked to in the Delta has concerns about the state’s proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which would build tunnels at the north end of the Delta to ship water across the state. There are lots of questions about how much farmland would be lost to tunnel construction and wetland restoration, and about how new infrastructure would affect the quality of the Delta water. Daniel Wilson shares those concerns, but in the meantime he’s sticking to what his family’s done for over a century.

“I love to farm. I like this area. I like to grow things,” he says. “If we can figure out a way to make money doing what we love to do, we have our questions answered.”

This story is part of a larger series titled "Navigating the Delta." You can hear all of the stories in this series here.

Originally aired Wednesday, February 19, 2014