too many words by laura lemay

Valley of heart's delight

Pretty much everyone knows that Silicon Valley used to be called the Valley of Heart’s Delight, used to be full of orchards, and that the farmers all slowly vanished once the computers came in. There are still vestiges of the old Valley left, though, still a few old family farms left here and there in amongst the office buildings the billboards and the freeways. It hasn’t all disappeared.

I used to buy strawberries and cherries from an orchard in Saratoga. Actually, it wasn’t really an orchard, it was just an older gentleman with a few cherry trees who, as I understood it, used to have a much larger farm but sold off most of the land over the years as land values went up and farming became less profitable. He kept the acre or so around his house because he just really liked being a farmer. In May he would sell strawberries from Gilroy, and in June he sold cherries from his own trees, all from a little roadside stand. I would drive by, park along the white fence alongside his property, chat for a bit and buy a quart or two of berries for eating or for jam, or cherries for snacking. The prices were good, and the fruit was incredibly fresh and flavorful (far more than it ever got at the grocery store).

I read in the local paper late last year that my friend the old farmer had died, and his family was trying to decide what to do with the orchard. I hoped they would find a way to keep it open, but I knew that with housing prices what they were in the Valley, and especially in Saratoga, that the little cherry orchard would be sold. And sure enough, I drove by there just a little while ago, and there was a FOR SALE sign up on the white fence next to the roadside stand where I used to park my car.

I was very quiet for the next mile down the road.

Saratoga is a very rich neighborhood, a town of sweeping driveways paved in brick leading up to enormous faux-Tudor and faux-Tuscan mansions. You could fit at least three or four of those houses on a sad little worn out cherry orchard once you scraped all the trees off of it, sell those houses for a couple mil apiece, make quite a profit on your investment. And that’s what the Valley is all about, right? Return on Investment?

I was thinking of my friend and his cherry orchard when I heard recently that Mariani, the last dried fruit packer in Santa Clara County, is shutting down and moving to the Central Valley. Last year Del Monte closed its last fruit cannery here. A couple of years back Olson Cherries, who had huge orchards out in Sunnyvale and a big roadside stand on El Camino Real, sold most of its land to a developer. There are apartments there now. They’re called the Cherry Orchard Apartments. Ha ha ha.

All we’ve got left now as far as actual commercial fruit production in the Valley is a tomato packer owned by a company in New York, and a small maraschino cherry manufacturer. Both are planning to leave the Valley in the next few years. Soon all the fruit will be gone.

Does it really matter? Computers are more profitable. The economy in the area is certainly better with high tech that it would be in farming. The jump in land values is great if you own land. And you could argue that a lot of these farmers have been here for long enough that they can sell out for a lot of money, retire altogether or just buy more land in a cheaper area and keep farming. They don’t have to farm in this particular neighborhood. We don’t need farming here.

But I don’t know. In San Francisco they complain that when the dotcommers came in they drove out all the artists and the musicians and the people who make San Francisco interesting — that all that high tech money turned the city into a town of loft condos and cell phones and SUVs. In the Valley we’ve been over-teched for a long time and the change been much more gradual, much less dramatic. But the problem is the same: its good to have diversity. Its good to have industry in an area that is not all chips and networks and software. Its good to be able to talk to people who have different interests, different backgrounds, different ways of looking at the very neighborhood you live in and the streets you walk and drive every day. When an industry dies, particularly an industry that was once so important to this area, you lose all of that. I think its hard to understand how much that will be missed until its gone…and until it is far too late to get it back. But then, for the Valley of Heart’s Delight, it probably already is.