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California's Emerging Third Force

August 17, 1986|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, author of "Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era" (Oxford), is finishing a book on the Depression in California.

SAN FRANCISCO — California, classically divided into north and south, is developing a third force--its agricultural interior, from Bakersfield to Sacramento and beyond.

The emerging interior California, which statistics show as the most dynamic region of growth in the state, extends from the Tehachapis over the San Joaquin Valley, northward through the Sacramento Valley (together making up the Central Valley) until it encounters the alpine regions that traverse California's northern edge.

With the exception of a few exploratory expeditions, the Spanish never settled the great Central Valley. Hispanic California, Spanish and Mexican, was a coastal affair; and this pattern of coastal settlement continued into the American era.

During the Gold Rush, Marysville and Sacramento functioned as gateways, but the major American urban settlements grew up on the coastal regions. Touring inland California in 1859, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wondered where all the people were. Not until the 1870s was there any systematic settlement of the Central Valley. Not until the citrus boom of the 1880s and 1890s was there similar growth in the inland areas of the south. When Frank Norris wrote about the San Joaquin Valley in his memorable 1901 novel, "The Octopus," he had to transpose the social structures of San Benito County, adjacent to Monterey County--including two cities and a Franciscan mission--to the as-yet empty interior, in order to provide a sociologically sophisticated background.

Today's Central Valley supports an axis of interior cities that includes a deep-water port, Stockton, and a four-county area--El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo--that Wells Fargo economists in their recent forecast, "California 2000," consider one of the most dynamic metropolitan areas in California. The valley's 15 million acres--an area roughly equal to New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont combined--holds three-quarters of California's irrigated crop land, and a sixth of the irrigated crop land of the United States.

Why this new growth in the 600-mile corridor between Bakersfield and Redding? In the case of metropolitan Sacramento, now past the 1.3 million mark, in part it is logistics--the area is graced with a first-rate highway and railroad network, proximity to both San Francisco and the rest of the Central Valley, affordable housing and the spinoff effects of UC Davis, one of the state's most important research institutions.

With land and construction costs low and highways readily available, the interior cities are capable of supporting the shipping infrastructure of the entire Pacific Coast--and this means, eventually, that the Central Valley will service the forthcoming Pacific Rim economy of the state.

"Urbanized coastal land is too expensive for anything more than high-ticket housing and office space," said Fresno trucker and attorney Terry Fortier, president of Commercial Transfer Inc., a major inland carrier. "We're the California in reserve. You can store it here, stage it here and ship it from here at costs you can afford."

By the year 2000, according to the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, Pacific Rim countries will not only be investing in interior California but they could emerge as the primary consumers of Central California's agribusiness products.

If, that is, interior California agribusiness can remain competitive. Foreign countries are already beating out the Central Valley in the race to feed, not just the world, but the United States. Spain and Portugal, for instance, are wreaking havoc on Fresno's raisin industry (which will soon gain unaccustomed nationwide attention through a satirical TV miniseries now in production: "Fresno: the People, the Passion, the Produce.") Mexico might have its oil problems but its cauliflower, broccoli and tomatoes are giving nightmares to California farmers faced with labor costs that can soar 10 times or more higher than those to the south; 1986 may mark the first time in 16 years that the United States imports more food than it exports.

Interior California is now at a point where transformed and transforming industries reflect the condition of the larger American economy. Metropolitan Sacramento can grow as a center of high-tech manufacturing, warehousing and shipping, and research industries affiliated with UC Davis. Fresno, by contrast, hardest hit by the current agribusiness revolution of technology and markets, suffers a downtown lined with empty office buildings awaiting a boom that never really happened.

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