This article was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, by Tim Stanley.
In a recent blog, I told you about early water development in the Santa Clara Valley. This time I’ll tell you about another development without which the Valley could never have become known as “The Garden of the World.”
That development was the import business—specifically, the importation of nursery stock and honey bees.
From the time of the founding of Mission Santa Clara, newcomers brought their favorite fruit trees with them to the Valley. With the beginning of the American era, however, this effort was stepped up considerably as businessmen traveled the world to find what fruit trees they thought might grow well in the area.
Honey bees, which are necessary for the pollination of most fruit trees and vegetable crops, as well as for alfalfa and most clovers, were imported from Europe. A man named Christopher Shelton brought the first honey bee colonies to the San Jose area in 1853, and in the 1860s and 70s, thousands of colonies were brought across the plains and across the Isthmus of Panama into California.
Planting an orchard is a very substantial investment. A careful analysis must be made of exactly what to plant and exactly where to plant it. Fruit trees must be selected for fruits that will have a ready and constant market. After a variety has been selected, a determination needs to be made if it is best to plant seedlings or cuttings. If it is determined that cuttings are preferable, grafting the cuttings onto the rootstock of another tree—usually a native—needs to be considered. The ground must be prepared adequately. Rocks and other obstructions must be removed. After planting, the trees must be nurtured carefully for about five to seven years before they are able to produce a crop that is worthy of taking up the ground. And labor must be available to bring in the crop.
Perhaps nothing in farming is more risky than putting in an orchard. One only needs to drive around the state a little to see dozens of orchards that have failed. Not enough water, wrong soil type, incorrect climate, a change in consumer tastes, inadequate transportation, labor problems, or any one of a host of other factors can easily bring a lot of hard work to nothing. The micro climates along the base of the Los Gatos - Saratoga hills are good examples of how tricky the selection process was for local farmers. What grew well in the flats did not necessarily grow well in the hills, and vice versa.
In addition, planting an orchard is a marriage. Once an orchard is in, it must be tended to or its value will be lost.
The many factors to consider when making the decision to plant an orchard apply equally to far more than just orchards. If a farmer puts in an apple orchard, for example, and it produces two tons of apples per acre, he might be quite happy. He may have a ready market for his apples and may be able to make a good living off of them. But if someone in a more suitable area puts in apples and gets ten tons to an acre, the first farmer had better find something else to grow—and quickly.
In the Valley, as everywhere, people were, and are, watching to see what is successful and what is not. What is successful will be copied, the market will become flooded, and the farmer—if he is going to continue farming—must grow what grows best in his area. It is also prudent to spread the risk over a few crops. Competition is a fact of life. Even wildlife competes for food. Grasses compete for space, and it’s hard to think of pretty wild flowers or cute deer competing for anything, but they do.
In the early days, while San Francisco and the gold fields were booming, nursery stock, like all other goods, was sold at enormous mark-up. Nevertheless, the demand was very high and many farmers took the risk, bought expensive stock, and put in orchards. By the late 1860s, however, there was a glut of fresh fruit in the area and no market for it, so a lot of it rotted. Disgusted farmers tore out some of those early orchards and switched to other crops.
So, the orchard industry in the Santa Clara Valley had a shaky start until the middle 1870s when canning and drying methods were perfected.
We’ll talk about that in a future article.