Agriculture in the Eastern Sierra

            Agriculture in the Eastern Sierra began with native people diverting creeks to water stands of wild hyacinth and nut grass and advanced to a large farming community with an elaborate network of ditches and canals.  After Los Angeles redirected the water from the Owens River to San Fernando in the 1920s, the Owens Valley went into a state of desertification that one sees today driving along U.S. 395.

            The first settlers into the Eastern Sierra were ranchers in the 1860s.  Conflicts soon arose between the newcomers and the native Paiute people that resulted in war and a complete disruption of their way of life.  Roaming cattle and sheep in the thousands devoured the Paiute’s food resources while mining, railroads and pioneer households depleted the Pinyon Pine nut trees in the surrounding hills.  A symbiotic relationship formed over time between the Indians and the settlers for labor to dig irrigation ditches, perform household chores and help with farming and ranching.  The Indians often lived on the edge of the ranch or farm they worked for and adopted the family’s name. 

            The first farmers in places such as Round Valley at the northern end of the Owens Valley had great difficulty in fencing in their crops, because barbed wire had not yet been invented.  They had to laboriously construct rock walls in the old style to keep the stock from destroying their valuable barley and wheat.  The rocks they took out of their fields were used to build the walls, which are still visible today.

             Crops and foodstuffs were in great demand at the time by miners in such places as Bodie and Aurora, Nevada.  The farmers and ranchers were kept busy making the long, arduous trek in heavy wagons on God-awful roads to the remote mines with their produce, cattle and sheep. 

            By 1920 there were 7,000 people and 800 farms in the Owens Valley, and they had the luxury of shipping their goods by railroad.  It had been an idyllic life for the residents of the deepest valley, until the water dried up and was diverted to create the metropolis of Los Angeles.

            Through an ingenious system of irrigation ditches and canals, the farmers had managed to send water wherever it was needed in the entire valley.  They took water from streams that flowed down from the high, snow-covered mountains and channeled it through washes and ditches for miles before reaching their fields in the bottom lands. They had to remove countless granite boulders to create the ditches and used dynamite for the stubborn rocks.  All this labor was done by hand until power equipment was invented and used to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  Most of the ditches can still be seen today and are lined with old Cottonwood stumps and blown-down Locust trees.  When Los Angeles diverted the mountain streams into the Aqueduct and bought up the farmlands, they removed the ranch houses and cut down any trees that could suck up groundwater.  Many of the old ditches and canals are now buried deep in tumbleweeds and windblown sand.  The construction of the L.A. Aqueduct may be remembered as the most notorious water grab in the history of the West. 

            Gone are the fruit orchards of Manzanar and the vast, rich, green fields of alfalfa as far as the eye could see.  Ranching took over and most of the Los Angeles Dept. of  Water and Power lands to the north in Mono Countyare being leased today.  One hundred forty years of cattle and sheep grazing has contributed to an environmental toll on the land.  Ranchers must rotate their stock on their grazing allotments, so they don’t stay in one place too long.  The Tule Elk are also out there competing with the stock for forage. 

            Farming still goes on in the area.  The Benton, Hammil and Chalfant valleys produce hay, carrots, potatoes and garlic worth more than $40 million a year.  Agriculture is the second highest income producer in the region behind tourism.  

            The thing now is to try to repair environmental damage with projects such as the rewatering of the Lower Owens River and dust mitigation at places like the dry Owens Lake and Laws.  Five hundred million dollars has already been spent on the Owens Lake alone.    Despite their worthy efforts, groundwater pumping continues and most of the valley will not return to what it used to be without natural irrigation.  Residents of the Owens Valley and Mono County realize that it is a trade off, because the area could have been over-developed had the water remained.   Regardless, the inhabitants feel fortunate to live in the beautiful Eastern Sierra and to continue their rural, agricultural and ranching way of life.

One Response to “Agriculture in the Eastern Sierra”

  1. Mark Says:

    Hi fellow hiker. I met you last summer and just came across your address. I met you at a spot just off road that goes up to the trail head by Sibrina Lake. You had your dog and had stopped to take some medicine…I sat and joined you and your dog. I was waiting for my friends for a backpack. The trip was very exciting..A storm was blowing thru during our hike to LaMark Col and the rain was not much fun, but we carried on. Lots of snow on the other side of the col and a very hard, but fun, hike into Darwin Bench- near the end by the waterfall to Evelolution Valley. After that it cleared up and had an amazing time…so beautiful…this has been our 3rd visit. Thanks for filling some of my time while i was waiting for my friends. Mark

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