Valley of Heart’s Delight

Pretty much everyone knows that Silicon Valley used to be called the Valley
of Heart’s Delight, used to be full of orchards, and that the farmers all
slowly vanished once the computers came in. There are still vestiges of the
old Valley left, though, still a few old family farms left here and there
in amongst the office buildings the billboards and the freeways. It hasn’t
all disappeared.

I used to buy strawberries and cherries from an orchard in Saratoga. Actually,
it wasn’t really an orchard, it was just an older gentleman with a few cherry
trees who, as I understood it, used to have a much larger farm but sold off
most of the land over the years as land values went up and farming became
less profitable. He kept the acre or so around his house because he just really
liked being a farmer. In May he would sell strawberries from Gilroy, and in
June he sold cherries from his own trees, all from a little roadside stand.
I would drive by, park along the white fence alongside his property, chat
for a bit and buy a quart or two of berries for eating or for jam, or cherries
for snacking. The prices were good, and the fruit was incredibly fresh and
flavorful (far more than it ever got at the grocery store).

I read in the local paper late last year that my friend the old farmer had
died, and his family was trying to decide what to do with the orchard. I hoped
they would find a way to keep it open, but I knew that with housing prices
what they were in the Valley, and especially in Saratoga, that the little
cherry orchard would be sold. And sure enough, I drove by there just a little
while ago, and there was a FOR SALE sign up on the white fence next to the
roadside stand where I used to park my car.

I was very quiet for the next mile down the road.

Saratoga is a very rich neighborhood, a town of sweeping driveways paved
in brick leading up to enormous faux-Tudor and faux-Tuscan mansions. You could
fit at least three or four of those houses on a sad little worn out cherry
orchard once you scraped all the trees off of it, sell those houses for a
couple mil apiece, make quite a profit on your investment. And that’s what
the Valley is all about, right? Return on Investment?

I was thinking of my friend and his cherry orchard when I heard recently
that Mariani, the last dried fruit packer in Santa Clara County, is shutting
down and moving to the Central Valley. Last year Del Monte closed its last
fruit cannery here. A couple of years back Olson Cherries, who had huge orchards
out in Sunnyvale and a big roadside stand on El Camino Real, sold most of
its land to a developer. There are apartments there now. They’re called the
Cherry Orchard Apartments. Ha ha ha.

All we’ve got left now as far as actual commercial fruit production in the
Valley is a tomato packer owned by a company in New York, and a small maraschino
cherry manufacturer. Both are planning to leave the Valley in the next few
years. Soon all the fruit will be gone.

Does it really matter? Computers are more profitable. The economy in the
area is certainly better with high tech that it would be in farming. The jump
in land values is great if you own land. And you could argue that a lot of
these farmers have been here for long enough that they can sell out for a
lot of money, retire altogether or just buy more land in a cheaper area and
keep farming. They don’t have to farm in this particular neighborhood. We
don’t need farming here.

But I don’t know. In San Francisco they complain that when the dotcommers
came in they drove out all the artists and the musicians and the people who
make San Francisco interesting — that all that high tech money turned the
city into a town of loft condos and cell phones and SUVs. In the Valley we’ve
been over-teched for a long time and the change been much more gradual, much
less dramatic. But the problem is the same: its good to have diversity. Its
good to have industry in an area that is not all chips and networks and software.
Its good to be able to talk to people who have different interests, different
backgrounds, different ways of looking at the very neighborhood you live in
and the streets you walk and drive every day. When an industry dies, particularly
an industry that was once so important to this area, you lose all of that.
I think its hard to understand how much that will be missed until its gone…and
until it is far too late to get it back. But then, for the Valley of Heart’s
Delight, it probably already is.