National Geographic : 2014 Oct
62 national geographic • October 2014 F or three generations the Diener family has farmed the same ten square miles of Central Valley dirt. In the 1920s they grew barley and alfalfa to feed the mules that powered the construction of Los Angeles. In the 1930s, as internal combustion replaced animal muscle, they grew cotton to bind rub- ber car tires. Today, as California limps through its third year of drought, John Diener, his sons, and their land are getting into the cactus business. Diener grows produce on as grand a scale as any in the Central Valley, cultivating hundreds of acres of tomatoes, almonds, organic broc- coli, and other crops. But he thinks differently from most farmers here. Maybe it’s that he’s the youngest son of a youngest son, used to making the most of bad situations. Or maybe his years living outside the valley have given him a mav- erick’s confidence. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t put much stock in more dams, fewer environmental re- strictions, or any of the other measures his neighbors say will relieve the economic pain. Short-term fixes, he shrugs. “The real problem,” he says as he navigates his pickup through the valley’s grid of dusty roads, “is that there’s just not enough water in the system.” On the western edge of his property, below the snowless hills of California’s coastal moun- tains, Diener stands on the dry dirt between rows of young cacti, inspecting the bright green new growth. In cooperation with researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Diener has planted about 20 acres of a patented variety of prickly pear cactus, a crop he hopes to sell both as food and as a mineral-rich nutritional supplement. Years of drought have concentrated naturally occurring salts in this field’s soil, but the cacti appear to be doing just fine. “If we need to, we’ll plant more,” he says. He laughs. “We’re opportunists, after all.” The story of the Central Valley of Califor- nia is the story of much of the American West, and of other inhabited deserts around the world. By Michelle Nijhuis Photographs by Peter Essick WATER DRILLING NEAR HANFORD, CA With water supplies slashed, farmers have been sinking hundreds of new wells into the region’s dwindling groundwater reserves, leaving land vulnerable to subsidence. Science writer Michelle Nijhuis has covered the West for 15 years. Photographer Peter Essick’s work captures the fragile state of our environment.