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“This is Yolo County – between the range and the river – with its high grazing lands, grain lands, alfalfa lands, vinelands, orchard lands and land for every vegetable growth under sun and shower. Yolo County, with irrigation on the west and reclamation on the east, is just coming into its own – the richest spot in all the great Sacramento basin; Yolo County favored by rainstorm and sunshine – where every creek, winter-rivulet, or summer rill dripping from the bordering hills is a Nile sowing seasons of fertility over the plain.”
I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around Yolo County over the past sixteen years – as a ten year resident of Woodland, manager of some of the busiest restaurants in Davis, and a farm and agriculture advocate and consultant – I’ve been fortunate to experience the area’s farms and agricultural richness first hand. Whether you’re following Highway 128 through quaint and welcoming Winters or Highway 16 through the picturesque Capay Valley, it seems as if little has changed since Tom Gregory wrote his eloquent description of the region. It’s as evident today as it was in 1913 – agriculture is the heart of Yolo County.
A Brief History of Yolo County
For thousands of years, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation inhabited the land now known as Capay Valley. The Yocha Dehe (which means “home by the spring water”) lived, traded, hunted and thrived in the areas sustained by Cache Creek. The tribe lived in balance with their ecosystem and built their culture based on the abundant natural resources in the valley. The arrival of Europeans, particularly the Spanish, in the early 1800’s, all but destroyed the thriving Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, leaving only a small group of tribal members left to try and carry on the traditions of their ancestors.
Incorporated in 1850, Yolo County was founded by ranchers and farmers who were drawn to the area by its temperate climate, fertile soil, and abundant availability of water. By 1875, with the introduction of the railroad through Winters, Yolo County had become the epicenter of California agribusiness; providing fresh produce, meats, and dairy to markets and the finest restaurants from San Francisco to Los Angeles and across the western United States. Through earthquakes, drought, and World Wars, Yolo county maintained this proud distinction until shortly after WWII when increased efficiency and mechanization of the agricultural industry began to displace mixed and specialty crop production to regions further south like Salinas and Fresno.
The 1970’s birthed the beginning of Yolo county’s agricultural renaissance. In direct response to the growing commercialism and industrialization of our nation’s food system and pollution of our environment, a groundswell of social change based on community development, environmental sustainability, and economic activism began to take hold not only in Yolo County but across the country.
Inspired by the societal changes taking place, UC Davis students Jeff and Annie Main, Martin Barnes, Henry Esbenshade, and Ann Evans convinced the Davis city council in 1976 to approve the creation of one of the first (and now, longest running) farmers markets in the nation, the Davis Farmers Market. Shortly thereafter some of the most iconic farms of the region were founded, Jeff and Annie started Good Humus, Martin and his then wife, Kathleen Barsotti founded Capay Organic, and Henry founded Everything Under the Sun; all of which still actively sell at the Davis Farmers Market as well as at markets in San Francisco and Sacramento. The creation of the Davis Farmers Market ushered in a new era in Yolo County, one of collaboration between farmers and consumers based on community investment, environmental education, and most importantly, centered around amazing, locally grown and sustainably raised seasonal products.
Yolo’s agricultural success has been led, in large part, by the same people who have long been stewards of the land; the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and the new generations of the families who led the region’s efforts in the 70’s and 80’s – the Barsotti’s, Main’s – and the many other area farmers who have committed themselves and their operations to sustainable and organic practices over the last thirty years.
Although many of the challenges are the same as in the 70’s – politics, rising land prices, “big ag” competition, and finding new and sustainable paths to consumers – there is a palpable air of passion and positivity among the region’s farmers. Says Thaddeus Barsotti, co-owner, farm manager, and second-generation operator of Capay Organic, “My favorite thing about what I do is being the conduit between the land, the seasons, and the consumer. It’s a delicate balance between what nature demands and what the people demand. I get the greatest satisfaction in bringing those two together.”
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation pushed almost to extinction in the 1800 and 1900’s, now owns and operates more than 16,000 acres of Capay Valley farm and range land. Currently, more than 250 acres are certified organic and more than 1,200 acres are in permanent easements in an effort to preserve native wildlife and plant habitats and to restore the natural balance of the environment. The Seka Hills Olive Mill built in 2012 and whose tasting room opened in 2014, has become a physical representation of the agricultural and cultural goals of the tribe. Not only does Seka Hills produce some of the best, high-quality extra virgin olive oil in the region, the Tasting Room has also become a public, educational, and retail space intended to give residents and visitors to Capay Valley a deeper understanding and relationship with the tribe and with the abundance of the valley itself.
Although the tribe has continued to prosper and the Seka Hills brand has thrived as a result of their diversification of crops and development of retail products, the company’s mission has continued to be altruistic in its purpose, focusing not only on their own growth, but also on collaboration with and the success of their neighbors. In addition to 20 other local olive growers using Seka Hills mill for their own oil production, Jim Etters, Director of Land Management for the tribe, says “We work with our neighbors in all aspects of our operations. For instance, Capay Organic markets and distributes our organic asparagus, we round up and brand cattle together, share equipment with each other, and provide each other in-field support.”
“Agriculture,” says Etters, “it’s more than just a job, it’s a way of life.”