Almonds, Pistachios, Raisons and Cattle


I think the most difficult part about this blog will be admitting that as worldly as I might claim to be there is always something to learn. Funny how even with all the exposure I have had,  I still find myself shocked by the world around me and even more so in my own country…

Like the Oleander Hedges that surround people’s homes in the Central Valley, California that protects them from wind,  so do the buildings New York –  protect me from the winds of other peoples realities… I have glimpsed into a world that I claim to understand but do not know at all. I sit and scrutinize the food industry and I realize that I don’t even know first hand what it is all about. The books on my shelf at home are signs that I am well educated on food and farming but this trip proves I am not.

This week, I had to shut up and listen instead of scream from my soap box about food rights, animal rights and peoples rights… This week I scratched the surface of farming in America… and this is what I learned…

I arrived at LAX about 8pm went to Enterprise Rent A Car and decided to rent the new JEEP Cherokee. On a scale from 1 to 10 – I give it a 9!  It proved to be a perfect car for farm country.

I drove over to Gjalena Restarant in Venice, highly recommended by my friend Dahlia that had been there a week prior and claimed “the food was SICK”.

I arrived at a bustling indoor/out door industrial but rustic style restaurant and sat down Solamente Stephanie at the communal table that dominates the center of the room. People seem excited in general to be there… a sign in LA that the food actually might be good or because someone famous has arrived… I hope it is because of the food!

I dined on their beet salad and drank a glass of Sangiovese! I finished it with a goat cheese and honey ice cream that was divine… I sat next to a young group of boys/men that had just graduated from college and are already either at talent agencies or aspiring thinking about their first screen play. They were straight out of and HBO episode of Entourage! I want to send a shout out to Peter the Greek! Who kept me company while I dined alone – all I can tell him is don’t stop writing!!!

Waking up early the next day and checking out of the “Inn at Venice Beach” which is a renovated “Days Inn” but the sheets were clean and the shower hot… I was looking forward to my trip with my friend. After a quick left and right turn before we knew it, we were cruising the 405 north!

Did you ever realize that in LA they call their Freeways THE 405 and THE 10 and THE 101? Would it not be weird in New York if you said to someone to take THE 495? THE 95? THE 91? I am curious to know how LA freeways (not highways mind you) got the THE in front of the number and in addition, why are they called Freeways and not Highways… further more – why was the show CHIPS called CHIPS? California Highway Patrol… should it not have been called CFPS? (pronounced SFIPS) California Freeway Patrol? – Just a thought.

After we drove 2 hours and were at this point on THE 5 – we caved in and went into a Starbucks – apparently the last one for miles… I asked for a Chai Tea Latte and the server asked if I wanted it made with  a  tea bag or not? Confused I asked

“Why? Is there another option? Isn’t Chai –  a tea?”

The server responded “Well yes, but here we make it with syrup unless you ask specifically for the tea bag… and I just wanted you to know that if I did not ask you – I would have used the Syrup. The severs don’t tell everyone that.” I am shocked… anyway – Starbucks is totally annoying  – I ask for the tea bag and get out of there!

Walking out with my Chai – I notice we were blocked by an enormous sprinkler system… which brings me to a pet peeve I have… besides disposable coffee cups/ chai syrup and a whole bunch of other stuff… I really get frustrated by wasted water!

Why do people that insist on living and working in the desert grow green grass like they are NOT living in the desert? The amount of water wasted on watering lawns in the desert is astronomical.  People that move to the desert should then live in the desert!  And if you are going to water something, at least have it be something that grows and you can eat.  Otherwise, your front lawn should well, look like the desert.

It took about 3 hours and 15 minutes to get to our destination which is a farm located in the Central Valley of California…

The first person I meet is a 2nd generation farmer that manages 30,000 acres of land that even includes processing plants for nuts and tomatoes. This “farm” supplies 80% of the pistachios and almonds to the world and even more tomato paste. In other words, if you eat an almond or a pistachio and squirt some ketchup on something, it most likely comes from this farm.

What does a farm that feeds the world look like? In truth: mind blowing. You can drive along one plot at 60 mph for a few minutes… and all you see are crops. The careful arrangement of the almond trees and other plants that I understand are now planted with GPS systems is daunting. Even cooler? It’s harvest time, so we get to see how they get the food out of the farm in into your grocery stores.

Almond Grove - Photo by Watkinson

First stop: The almond grove. Did you know that the almond is a variation of a peach? The almond tree and the peach tree are grafted at planting… and out comes a delicious almond nut. It grows on the tree that bears this fruit that even has the peach fuzz on it!!! This is called the hull and in it the shell we all recognize… kind of looks like a peach pit come to think of it!  The soft flesh of the almond hull is peeled away – but saved to feed dairy cows, apparently the gobble them up! These fuzzy little incubators hold the almond shell that is soft off the tree and inside that is the nut.

Almonds in the Raw - Photo by Fink

It is middle October and harvesting almonds is at its peak! It starts with a machine that shakes the tree. These machines can do a tree every 30 seconds or so… I am told that the operator of the machine is important, shake the tree too much and you can break the tree trunk, shake it too little and you don’t get all the fruit…  Once the trees shake out, the fruit lies on the dirt for a few days to dry. Then sweepers come in and move them in organized rows down the center of the grove’s aisles. Farm hands will often rake by hand as well to make sure not an almond is missed.  It is grueling work because it is dusty and hot. The sun beats through the limbs of the trees as the dust kicks up from machine and rake.  Farm hands are covered from head to tow and their mouths and noses are covered too! The farm hands are Central American. The farm I am visiting employs over 1000 workers at harvest and has about 100 working full time throughout the year.  I am told that some of the workers have been here for over 20 years and that one man sent 2 kids to Harvard! The workers are here for the slice of the American dream just like any other and I got news for you, they pick your food.  The community is strong and the farm treats them like family. This might be unusual, I am not so sure what to believe anymore… I have heard nightmare stories about farms in the US that don’t even provide the workers bathrooms, but not here. What I saw on this farm were clean portable bathrooms that I even used. There was clean water to wash hands, shaded tables for them to each lunch and even signs posted that keep workers abreast of their rights… Both men and women work the farms… but the majority are men. We got to interact with some of the workers there are they were full of smiles and very kind… I won’t forget them actually and next time I eat an almond that was most likely picked by them, I will be thankful.

Raking the Almonds - Photo by Watkinson

Since we are here around harvest, you can only imagine that it is peak time to pull an almond fruit off the tree and bite into it!   You pull the soft fruit off the tree and split open the fuzzy hull. Then you bite into the shell of the almond is actually soft and easy to open. After you crack the shell – revealed is the dark brown nut. One bite into it and you immediately taste marzipan. By far the best almond I have ever had…

The same goes for pistachios, which is our next stop on the farm… this “hull” is not fuzzy like a peach it is fleshy and hard. You cut away with your finger nail to reveal the shell of the pistachio which when they are ready to harvest, already has a break in it… it is soft and it is an easy split revealing a pinkish green and white nut… I bite into its and it is the best thing you have every tasted. The nutty fruity hard but soft nut is divine… I break open about 20 on the spot and eat them with ease… oh my god, this is heaven….

Pistachio in the Raw - Photo by Watkinson

FACT: Pistachios need about 7 male trees to pollinate a grove of about 130 female trees… they are placed throughout each grove randomly.

I have covered almonds and pistachios and now I need to cover the tomatoes… plum tomatoes to be exact… we arrive on the 2nd to last day of their harvest. There is a factory on the farm that processes the tomatoes within a day or a few hours of picking.

This farm is the largest producer of tomato paste in the US if not the world. As trucks drive by, I am told a truck will drive by every 10 minutes or so for the next 48 hours bringing tomatoes to the paste plant. They have been harvesting for the past few days and are 2 days away from completion. It is a 24/7 operation and depending on the variety and timing, some paste stays here in the US and the rest? You will never believe it… goes to  ITALY!!!!!

We have been taken around by a farm manager that has lived in this area for his entire life. He claims it is God’s country, lucky to have the canopy of stars that blanket them at night and the bluest and mostly cloudless skies that hangover them during the day.  He tells us that every day is different. Every weather pattern is a new one and you can read all you want about farming but the only way to become a good farmer is to know the land and air around you and to be there on a daily basis…  Even the way this farmer walks on the land and looks at it, seems special… the gentle breeze today kisses our faces with the heat of the sun above…  You have to be out on the land, surveying it and working it to actually understand it… the quiet passion that came from this man was impressive. His knowledge, education and sophistication was beyond anything I expected.

Did I mention cloudless? Did I mention desert? The central valley of California has been farmed for over 2 centuries and it does it on the dependency of water from the north because guess what: an annual rainfall of 5 inches to 30 inches is not enough to water these crops… A series of canals and pipes bring water to these plots from northern Califonia, and miles of hoses bring it to the trees via drip.

In addition I am seeing sprinklers for greener plant crops that happen to be on at dusk or dawn. There have been political battles in the state of California between the north and the south on the needs of water… There are signs on every street corner that claim WATER = JOBS and I am told in the last few years, unemployment in the area rose to 30%… so farming jobs and crops are important… is the website they continue to refer too.

Remember my comment on the Starbucks’ sprinkler system and residential water? Well it is so scarce and such a sore subject that if residents don’t grow food I predict will be illegal to eventually water your own lawn to save it for farms in this area..

In addition to various crops, we also learn about pests which include plants, insects and dust.

Morning glory and milkweed are relentless weeds that attack the land… some of the roots go as deep as 25 feet! There is a tree called a salt cedar that was originally planted for wind protection but are worse than Bamboo since it spreads and sucks water our of the land.

Oleander has a poisonous leaf that has been planted around homes and businesses in order to block the famous central valley winds that gust to 50mph! The oleander is very flammable and can also over grow… it does however have a beautiful flower as does the milkweed!

Dust is a problem here. When land is turned over to dirt… you can’t help but have dust. Air quality is not that great. Between pesticides and dust I am told that people have a higher rate of cancer in the valley. Sitting in a tranquil almond grove you feel as close to heaven as ever – until you get back into your car and see layer of dust and dirt and think, what is sitting in my lungs!

Tilled Land ready for next year's Crop. Photo by Watkinson

As far as pests go: there are too many to mention: only that, if a beetle from Japan hops a ride on an airplane to LA and a tourist walks an egg into a crop – it could be potentially devastating. The hawks pretty much take care of the groundhogs and I am told that they are so well fed they barely fly! There are flies everywhere… which is also incredible and lots and lots of mosquitos… at night I saw a few bats which are great insect eaters but they can’t do it all, aside from some organic crops, this farm has to use some form of pesticide and as minimally as possible… due to cost and health, but it is in fact unavoidable I am told.

Other crops we visit are organic broccoli which has the most beautiful bluish green color!

Then low and behold yes you heard it through the grapevine – we visit a raison farm which really does dry in the sun and on the vine! They were plump and delicious! This is called DOV – dried on vine. I never saw anything like it.

DOV! Sundried raisons! Photo by Kitchell

After an intoxicating 2 days of touring the farm and easting everything in sight, we are loving it.., The one thing I did notice is that organic crops are next to regular crops – I figure with the wind and the watering it is impossible that the organic crops are actually 100% organic and for some reason it does not really matter.

One crop I visited that surprised me most was cotton. Did you know that the cotton crop starts green then a defoliation solution is thrown on the crop to shrivel the leaves… why? Because the oil will stain the cotton during harvest. The crop is not picked by hand anymore, a machine comes to suck of what’s left of the defoliated plant where it goes for a de seeding and de sticking and off to the ginning mill that you guessed it – is also on the farm this place is a huge operation. Now that machines harvest the cotton it is much easier to get to, but this dry prickly thorny crop must have been hell to harvest back in the day. I think of the slaves that did it and feel terrible for them… as I turn around I see men hunched over picking iceberg lettuce, not prickly but back breaking as well. Farming is work and it is grueling.

Cotton bud, ready for processing - Photo by Watkinson

The battles that farmers have are with various elements:

weeds, water, weather, worms, insects, birds, politics and people. It seems to be a miracle that they are able to pull it all off… Feeling energized by my tour of the trees I dream of camping underneath the canopy of the almond trees…


We return to the Harris Ranch Inn and enter into a different reality… at least for me.

I walked into my hotel room and it was enormous and not well decorated… but I checked the sheets and they were clean, the bathrooms were ok too.  There was a coffee maker in the corner and I make a note to buy bottled water just thinking about pesticides.

Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurants is strategically placed 3 hours south of San Francisco and 3 hours north of LA. The half way point that started as a small grill and pit stop has turned into a meat eating tourist destination! Harris Ranch is another massive farm in the area… that grows anything from sweet potatoes, pistachios to garlic and onions but their pride is in their meat.  Besides tons of hotel rooms for busy travelers and an Olympic size pool to enjoy, the main business is the restaurant(s). Why do people come here? It is to eat the meat! Busses of tourists stop here and cars of people do too! Tonight there are busses of Japanese tourists. There is an odd gift shop includes a butcher shop, cow hydes and fur pillows… they were also selling Provence (French) style pottery which kind of threw me, I did not get the connection.

There are 3 restaurants that sit across the parking lot from the inn. Yes I said 3! One is decorated like a cracker barrel rest stop, the other like a Texan steak house and the third like sports bar. All three restaurants have huge tables that sit few people. I am already weary of the portion sizes.

As I walked over to meet my friend, I notice a stench in the air… it literally smells like cow shit…

I walk up to the hostess, ask for a table for two and then I ask

“What is that smell in the parking lot?”

These two hostesses chuckle and reply “That is the smell of money….”

Oh god, here is when it gets difficult for me… ….

What I was smelling was the cattle feed lot located 3 miles up the road that houses – oh God, what has to be 100,000 cows for about 90 days to fatten before they head to slaughter.  “That is the feed lot?” I asked.. “But it is a few miles up the road? How could I smell it?”

I was unlucky enough to drive by the Harris Ranch feed lot at oddly sits next to a main road for anyone to see! In a way I find it amazing that they are not hiding it, but on the other hand, incredible that after passing it, people still eat meat… this is where I feel isolated. I forget that people actually have no problem eating meat?!

For myself, I have to ask – At what point did humans lose empathy – what gave them the right to decide that animals were at our disposal and that we had the right to round them up and fatten them up and slaughter them and eat them?

Someone told me that the word for it was CowSchwitz and that I how I might see it, but remember that I told you I realize that I am much different and perhaps the minority of the world, well I am in this part of the world… people cutting into their steaks without remorse, some of them may have even passed the feed lot on their way – saw the innocent animals penned up  and thought nothing of it – they might have even driven by and gotten a rush out of it… “that’s right, look at all those stupid cows… I can’t wait to sink my teeth into one to them tonight at Harris Ranch.”

Eating at Harris ranch as a vegetarian is well, difficult. I took on the daunting task of making sure that anything I ordered on the menu came without meat or I asked for them to not put the meat in… every dish on the menu came with, well, yes… meat! Oh except the vegetarian chilly that was actually pretty good and the delicious sweet yams that Harris also grows.

To order is a strategic operation of asking various questions…  what is in that and what does that come with and “can I have it without meat?” attached to it… it was frankly exhausting… as  the people around me at various tables took their huge knives and dug into the meat of the mammals that I smelt just a moment before I entered the building I asked myself are they crazy for eating it or am I crazy for not eating the meat, which by the way people said “was really pretty good!”

I found the entire experience fascinating and almost have more of a respect for those who are acutely aware of the fact they were eating that stinky cattle from up the road?! How weird is that? In a way it is more honest then eating a burger and never seeing where is actually comes from… here in the central valley and throughout the country you will see angus grazing in the fields that you know will eventually end up on plates… and everyone seems very proud of it all!

Harris Ranch is a major operation. They provide many many jobs, he has got crops and cattle and even race horses. I can sit and argue all day long about how I feel about eating animals but I got news for you. I might have been the only one for 100 miles that feels the same way… this is when I shut my mouth and respect the land I am in… as I hope they would with me, if I even dared that I say that I did not eat meat. It as a humbling experience for me.. I was a guest of Mr. Harris in a sense and I had to just keep quiet and keep learning about what was going on around me…

This is where my blog gets complicated… even after I met Mr. Harris I wanted to be angry at him but I couldn’t be… this is a family owned operation of a tradition that is ingrained in him… even stranger I met a cattle ranching family that I absolutely fell in love with that provides Mr. Harris with just that… their cattle! How do I handle all this in one week? Next up.. where do some of these cattle even come from? How do they grow?

We approached the 22,000 acre cattle ranch from the mountains, from the north and from a dirt road…. Coming down to the valley where the most of the cattle were, we were met a ranching mom who was warm, smart and charismatic. She had a light to her that I could not quite catch, could it have been the surround valley oaks that hold a history of 300 + years? Could it be that they live literally on the St. Andreas Plate and were shaken by daily tremors reminding them of who’s boss on a daily basis… was it the golden fields that glistened in the sunlight – the quiet breeze that kissed your cheeks? I decide it is all of the above as I have this insatiable thirst to live on land like this…

With 3000+ head of cattle and many of the mom’s giving birth this week, the farm has a lot going on. On our ride though the fields, the calves danced around the mamas as our rancher mom called to them “Hi babies! Hi mama!” and all the cattle look at her…  some of the animals have names… some have markings, most of the cattle I am looking it are Angus cattle. All black, but some of these guys have white sox or markings or faces… We spot an Elk that seems to like it around there and literally grazes and herds with the cattle, we also spot a 300 pound wild boar that looks menacing… poachers come out here to get them, the ranchers try to keep poachers off their land… but it is not always easy for 5-6 people to manage 22,000 acres…

The herd...

Rounding up

There are bob cats and deer and hawks and they even have long horns on the property…

They round up, feed and herd the cattle with horses, atv’s trucks and dogs…. This family has been ranching since before America was in existence. When the Spanish and Mexicans owned this territory…. And it is special to them. They are insistant on keeping their grass fed cattle with plenty of room. Perhaps even too much even I said, Gee you can add a few more can’t you? But they are hesitant to do so… There is no over grazing, no water contamination, no abuse… it is pristine, serene and magical… the moos from the cows are music as they are curious to know what their rancher mom is doing with a bunch of strangers… she talks to them, she names them and she cares for them… there is a happiness there until you come to realize that most of the calves that are born will be sent to slaughter, most of them being the boys… the girls stay back to be future moms… in a circle that this rancher has been doing all her life… her family by her side, her children all accomplished ranch hands and wranglers… this is a family business, this is sacred, this is their life…

Haying from the truck

When this rancher mom told me about her cattle her land and her life, she then continued on to say  – “we don’t slaughter any cattle here… as a matter of fact I couldn’t.”

Her cattle get rounded up and sent to the Harris feed lot for the 90 days of fattening before slaughter..

Rancher mom tells me that the cows don’t have it so bad on the feed lot, that they don’t have to search or walk to their food. She also mentions there is shade. I am skeptical about the whole thing but realize that this is a much bigger fish to fry.

“I suppose if I have a steak, I might be one of mine, but I don’t want to think of it.” says rancher mom.

The idea of rounding up your pets and sending them to slaughter must take a toll doesn’t it? or maybe not? I decided not to dig deeper. As a guest I chose to stay quiet and respect her life – because in fact I do. I respect her deeply and greatly… I was afraid to even tell her I was a vegetarian  – that she would not even respect me… that I might have threatened the very way she makes a living, but she did respect me. We actually had an enormous amount in common, funny enough. She rides horses and I ride horses. She loves her dogs and so do I. She loves to work the land and she loves nature, as much as I do… I decide in my heart that if there is a way to raise cattle – this would be the way – in this heavenly place by these pious, good people… the pride comes through in the way they even speak. The way their ride their horses, conduct their lives, with love and certainty that this is what they were born to do. This was the real deal. This was a real ranch and I the real wild west. I was stunned by it all. Watching rancher mom and her daughter round up 500 head of cattle was a site to see. Girl power at its best… I got to peak into the sacred lives of very good Americans, of whom I will never forget.

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