Gold in Them There Hills
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
Maybe I expected a trip to California Gold Rush country to be like a reunion with an old reprobate — a rendezvous with a frayed and dreamy distant relative still sporting the smirk of get-rich-quick schemes and the glint of easy money. How could any kind of farming thrive where people had once scrambled in the late 1840s to pick up a fortune off the ground, combing the riverbeds for thimble-sized nuggets? Maybe that’s what we’d come to find out.
But the reality quickly erased that nagging doubt. Because this fertile rolling country seems to welcome a citrus grove tucked under the lip of a hill, and valleys dotted with vegetable patches and vineyards, grazing sheep and cattle. For all the region’s colorful and sometimes violent history, human efforts here seem to naturally take on a more modest scale.
Mokelumne Hill, the site of our first evening gathering and one of the richest early motherlodes, had been a bustling community of 15,000 by 1850, though its tight little valley overlooked by its eponymous hill, is now home to roughly 800 souls. We drove up and parked in front of the Leger Hotel (built in 1852, and in nearly continual operation since then), and met our hosts, Michael and Diane Kriletich, who were setting up the fundraising dinner for Calaveras Grown, a local farmers’ group, in the town hall across the street. We were quickly involved in a stroll around town with their son, Sean Kriletich, who is a community organizer and self-styled “urban farmer.” We quickly saw why. This valley had been discovered by French fur trappers in the 1830s, and well before the corrosive touch of gold had been considered a healthy, fertile climate — a safe place to settle down. And today most of the town’s yards have productive grapefruit or other citrus trees. Sean told us that the town used to be known as “the town of rotten fruit,” for all the decaying citrus in peoples’ yards. He explained that since many of these were retired folks taking heart or cholesterol medicines, they were forbidden to eat grapefruit. Which he saw as an opportunity, and approached people with an offer to prune their trees and pick the fruit. And last year Sean harvested 20,000 pounds of citrus from the trees in and around Moke Hill, as many locals call this peaceful community.
The evening’s sustenance featured a lamb stew, salad and dessert with all locally grown and donated ingredients. The town hall held 120 plus seats at the long tables for this sit-down dinner, after which Lynn Miller and I spoke. Maybe we don’t need an account of what was said, since it was fashioned to meet the needs of the people we had met and talked with all afternoon. I read poems about farm romances young and old, farm challenges and failures, looking at the hard realities, joys and pains of the life to warm up the audience, then Lynn came on with his message of commitment and hope, of cheer at how much is already being done in the area by small farmers who see what needs doing and do it.
Lynn drew a useful distinction between a neighborhood and a community, suggesting that we need to know where we stand, and the difference between the two. He implied that, for farming to be successful on a modest scale, you often need to work around other people who might not think and feel and act as you do. While a neighborhood is a small world of jostling, diverging and sometimes conflicting interests that demand to be negotiated, a community (that could be on-line) is an agreement, a gathering of like-minded individuals. And to answer that vital issue of scale, he said that our farming ventures should be measured by as much as we can hold in our embrace. Our audience was charged, and responded in kind. By the end of the official program there were forty knots of excited people on their feet around the hall, sharing their passions and questions. The walls were throbbing. It was a gathering heady with its own power and resourcefulness, the kind you have to sweep out at the end of the evening with a broom, since nobody wanted to leave. The hard-core participants wound up at the Leger Hotel’s bar, still swapping stories and dreams past two a.m. — but that is another story.
The next morning we took State Route 49 north to Auburn, a slow winding drive climbing and dipping through the foothills that hinted at how isolated these communities must have been before the coming of the automobile. We passed the site of Sutter’s Mill, now a state park on the American River, where the gold fuss all started. We checked into a motel in Auburn, then went to visit Dan Macon’s sheep operation. He was in the midst of lambing, and had been up several times the night before to check his ewes and newborns. We chatted while he rounded up lambs and moms for their first veterinary procedures, including shots, examining, numbering and weighing the half-dozen born the night before. Dan takes the local predators seriously, and encourages his Great Pyrenees to stay close to the flock by chaining them to tires that keep them from jumping fences to run after coyotes.
After our visit we went to Dan’s home for dinner with his wife Sammy and two daughters. While their farm-raised chicken baked on the outdoor grill, Lynn and Dan swapped stories about their long dealings in the auction business, which is how many farmers acquire the wherewithal to get started. After dinner we drove to the Grange Hall in Auburn for an event that was billed as a Potluck Dessert. Caution: if you have a sweet tooth, such a meeting could prove dangerous, since there’s nobody counting calories. Or seconds and thirds. Although this was a smaller venue, the group that gathered around a large ring of folding chairs shared some similarities with the Mokelumne Hill group of the night before. Everyone had both concerns about making it as a small farmer, and a personal story of struggle and experiment to find the best ways and means of working. Again we heard stories of individual frustration and flexibility in solving problems.
This night I read a couple of poems about working with mules, a long hard poem about subsistence, and a few others that were no party decorations either, and laid out the three interconnected farming issues of subsistence, sustainability and scale. Then Lynn stepped into the circle and gave them what they’d come for — a chance to hear, from one who knows, where small farming is today, where it’s come from, and what its future prospects are.
Then the floor was opened for questions and comments, and everybody got an earful in the exchange. With a more intimate group there was a stronger sense of connection, giving voice to doubts and concerns. We were continually impressed by how thoughtful and articulate these farmers were, both the older hands and those just starting out. With everyone’s attention focused on common problems, the moment offered unexpected chances to deepen and reflect. As one example, Dan Macon and fellow sheep herders have a problem with local laws conflicting with their need to move their sheep on the back roads once or twice a year. This move could be linked to a Heritage Festival that would give neighbors a chance to experience how flocks were moved before big rigs — and how it can be done again.
Next morning on the way north we took one final side trip, and stopped to visit Steve and Lisa Pilz at their Hillcrest Orchard and Produce, outside Penryn. Here on land that has been in the same family’s hands since the 1920s, we found the whole journey coming together, as we walked the citrus groves and talked with Steve Pilz.
His stories and examples were understated, well-honed and precise. Showing us around his orchard, Steve told of skunks living in the rusted-out irrigation pipes, that climb trees at night to eat snails off the leaves. He identified a species of wasp they used to spray for, that eats scale from citrus trees, so now is carefully protected. And he told us that a close examination of coyote scat led him to see that the local coyotes exist almost exclusively on a diet of windfall oranges through the winter. He showed us how he moves his pigs around to let them root up the invasive Johnson grass alongside their vegetable plots. And he pointed to an old plum in early bloom, under which he got a firefighting award — a memorable spot for that honor. Seems like it’s all in motion at Hillcrest, all tied together in an intricate farming dance.
Talking about fruit trees and current practices, we asked Steve if he could tell the difference between an young tree and an older one, by the taste and look of the fruit. He said he could, and that the older trees’ fruit (many of his citrus trees are seventy years old) has a flavor that is sweeter, subtler and more complex. Of course the trouble is, how to convey that nuance to the market where he sells his oranges, where some of his larger competitors will pull up twenty-year-old trees past their productive peak.
Asked about his relationships with upscale neighbors that border his land on every side, Steve tells us about an unfortunate incident; they had their annual load of chicken manure for the trees delivered the same day that, unbeknown to them, one neighbor had a fancy wedding in progress — directly downwind. When asked what can you do about that, he said maybe they should have invited us to the wedding — at least then we’d have known, and could have rescheduled. It seemed that we’d been hearing such issues of neighborliness for days.
Perhaps in an unconscious impulse to complete the circle, as we were leaving we noticed the license plate frame on Steve’s truck, that bears an obscure phrase we saw back on a brass plaque at the Mokelumne Hill Courthouse. It turns out that Steve is a “Clamper,” a member in good standing of E Clampus Vitus (a purported Dog Latin phrase with no known meaning, which Lynn Miller translated as “Grab onto Life”). It seems the Clampers in the gold hills first met in the basement of the Leger Hotel where we’d spent the night before last. A fun-loving and informal association of miners with a serious purpose, to care for injured fellow miners as well as widows and orphans, it stood in marked contrast to the Masons and other fraternal organizations that were stepping stones to local political power.
And then with every cranny in the Volvo filled with several varieties of oranges, we were homeward bound. It was a full trip both ways, with sails bent to catch whatever winds blew. Everywhere we went we met folks that were farming for real, with an eye to innovation, sustainability and scale. They had techniques to share and stories of success and failure, hard-won answers to our modest message of understanding and validation, clarity and encouragement. By the end of the trip I felt energized, joined in an ongoing and important venture.