Field Guide

Out and About with
The Field Guide to California Agricultureguidecover

By Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin, University of California Press, Berkeley 2010

Reviewed by Kristina Sepetys, photos by Peter Goin

In a recent conversation with a food-savvy friend, she described taking an afternoon drive in which she passed some cows grazing on rain-soaked green Northern California rangeland. She noted their breed as either blonde Charolais or brindled Beefmasters, I can’t remember which, but she knew that they were beef, not dairy cows, identified the breed and the farmers who owned them, and told me how many briskets and shanks those cattle would yield. Her point was that she was concerned about the limited supply of local, sustainably raised cattle and the possibility that a surge in demand, even a small one, could limit her access to this high-quality beef.

As I listened, I realized how I envy her agricultural knowledge and her ability to read the surrounding landscape. Her observations made me understand how little I know about the broader agricultural world of California, a state that grows more than 400 different crops and is the nation’s largest agricultural producer and exporter. I don’t think I could identify a livestock breed or even a crop from a car window. I wish I were better informed!

Well, there is no longer any reason for remaining in the dark. The Field Guide to California Agriculture, by Paul F. Starrs, geographer, and Peter Goin, photographer, both professors at the University of Nevada, is 475 fact-packed, richly illustrated pages describing the geography, ecology, economics, history, politics, and sociology of California’s agricultural industry, with a full inventory of its crops and products.

It’s a book “for everyone in California who eats or is interested in eating,” according to Starrs. You can read it cover to cover, as I did, or just browse to learn neat facts like these:

  • Cattle graze on half the area of California.
  • Agriculture claims more than 50 percent of California’s surface water supply, down from 85 percent 20 years ago.
  • Milk, lettuce, almonds, and grapes are the top cash crops in the state
    . . . although revenue produced by the mysterious and forbidden marijuana plant is nothing to blow smoke at. No one knows for sure, and you’d be hard pressed to find it in any official rankings, but marijuana is probably California’s largest value crop.
  • Many of the state’s cities are built on California’s most productive farmland.
  • The largest concentration of turkeys in the state is in the San Joaquin Valley. (You were thinking, perhaps, the State Capitol?)

Starrs is a geographer who is passionate about exploring the outdoor world and taking roads less traveled. With summer around the corner, this guide may inspire us all to do the same. It’s styled as a nature guide rather than a travel guide, but is a book to keep in the glove compartment to kindle wanderlust and inform us as we tool along an unfamiliar stretch of highway and wonder what’s growing over the fences in the fields beyond. The authors note that many agricultural sites in California are not easily accessed by the public, although there are a few exceptions, such as the oyster farms on Tomales Bay in Marin County. But if you’re a curious, intrepid sort, the book will arouse your interest and lure you out into the landscape through its detail and descriptions.

salinasstrawberrysignFor instance, here are examples of a few a few of the places discussed in the book that I’d like to visit:

  • The small town of Tulelake (0.4 square miles) in Siskiyou County. It was once home to the Modoc Indians and in World War II became the site of the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp. Starrs and Goin explain that it now advertises itself as “The Horseradish Capital of the Universe.”
  • Cache Creek near Woodland and I-5. I’d only known it as home to a well-advertised casino. Originally settled by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers, it now sees many organic food producers working the land in this fertile watershed.
  • Sutter Buttes. This volcanic formation juts up oddly from the flat Sacramento Valley where the rich farmland produces sheep, almonds, much of the state’s rice, and many other crops. Just across the Sacramento River from the buttes is the town of Colusa with its many historically and architecturally notable homes and buildings built by wealthy farmers and landowners.

So don’t hesitate to roam California’s agricultural landscape this summer. With a copy of the Guide in hand, you’re likely to discover something the book promises: “The more you know, the more you see.” •

Kristina Sepetys has written extensively on economic and environmental policy issues for many publications including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice. She lives in Berkeley with her family and can be reached at

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