Three weeks ago, a few colleagues and I took a drive east out of Los Angeles on Interstate 40, and stopped for breakfast just short of Palm Springs, 100 miles or so from the county line. The waitress asked where we were headed. Imperial County, we told her, to which she responded “Where is that?” Turns out, most of Imperial County’s neighbors don’t know this region exists (and it is a region, referred to also as Imperial Valley), spread as it is between San Diego County, a particularly flat part of Arizona, and northern Baja California. Perhaps you don’t know of it either. Actually, neither did I before a research trip to this area materialized recently to what we’ve been calling the “edge of empire.”
Here’s who does know the topography, and the culture, of this region very well: United States Border Patrol; illegal immigrants being transported across steamy tracts of sand dunes; flocks of snowbirds who drive their RVs south for the winter and set up shop near the Salton Sea; and 500 or so commercial farmers who make a living turning a half million acres of parched desert into lettuce and broccoli, onions and watermelons.
It’s the last group that interests me most, though the border politics being played out along the heavily surveilled zone where Imperial County threatens to become Mexico are equally fascinating. You’ve probably tasted something edible from Imperial County, especially if you eat bagged salad greens on the East Coast, slices of California-grown winter tomatoes, or perhaps a handful of Sunkist raisins now and then. Imperial County produce doesn’t compete with the Midwest’s corn and soybeans, nor does it pretend to be “local,” or even very organic: it’s simply trying to feed the nation its daily dose of fruits and veggies. The county’s highest grossing product is actually beef cattle and also alfalfa, which is baled for hay and shipped out to nearby, and faraway—e.g. China—confined cattle feeding operations. But unlike most counties in California, indeed in the country, that grow cattle feed, Imperial County grows just about everything else as well, with a mere three inches of rainfall per year.
Immaculate vegetable conception? You might say so. Fertile soil Imperial does have, thanks to the ancient route of the mighty Colorado River, which sliced through a piece of earth that we now know as the Grand Canyon and deposited its loamy contents in a flood plain just south of the present-day Salton Sea. The body of water is also evidence of a voracious River of an earlier time, which flooded its banks and created this salty inland sea in 1905. Its shores littered with fish skulls and bird feathers, nothing flows into the Sea now except for agricultural run-off. And nothing flows out.
The swath of fertile soil trailing the Salton Sea today is verdantly green from above, though it stood to remain as brown earth, like the rest of this corner of California, until the water started flowing. Here, water doesn’t fall from the sky but drifts, rushes, and churns through a series of dams and canals that divert the Colorado from Arizona before letting the river’s remnants flow into Mexico, full of silt and salt and chemicals. And when Imperial County’s farmers need to water their fields, they simply pick up the phone and dial in their water order for the day to Imperial Irrigation District headquarters. Flood gates open, ditches fill, and crops perk up from their heat-induced stupor, standing tall against neighboring fields of dust.
Photo by author.
Originally posted on The Faster Times, July 22, 2009