Race and Apples 4: The Survival of the Confederate State in Washington’s Apple Industry

One of the consequences of settlement of the Columbia Basin is that this land in the North is actually in the South. It’s kind of a continuation of the US Civil War, which was fought over race, culture and economics, which were rather closely tied.

As a nation, the United States was still primarily agricultural in the years before, during and immediately after the Civil War. About three-quarters of the population lived in rural areas, including farms and small towns. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution that had hit England decades before gradually established itself in the “former colonies.”
While factories were built all over the North and South, the vast majority of industrial manufacturing was taking place in the North. The South had almost 25% of the country’s free population, but only 10% of the country’s capital in 1860. The North had five times the number of factories as the South, and over ten times the number of factory workers. In addition, 90% of the nation’s skilled workers were in the North.

            In his 1851 essay, Walking, Thoreau wrote that wildness was “the preservation of the world.” His thesis was that if people could experience “wildness” in the west, it would become part of the “civilized” life of the east, renew it, and change its direction away from enslavement and conquest. He’d hoped it would prevent war in the United States. It was a statement that the end of slavery in the North West would prevent Civil War. He should have been more direct. There were men from the South who had worked hard for slavery in Oregon and what went with it, the American version of aristocracy, the establishment of industrial agriculture and the society of manager-owners that went with it. It is what V.S. Naipaul identified in his A Turn in the South, as a Caribbean slave culture.

In the case of Oregon, and all new states in the West, the introduction of slavery would even out the imbalance between the non-slaving north and the slaving south, and maintain the union. Thoreau hoped for a different way. In his wartime 1862 essay Wild Apples, he argued more directly:

What are the imported half-ripe fruits of the torrid South to this fruit matured by the cold of the frigid North? These are those crabbed apples with which I cheated my companion, and kept a smooth face that I might tempt him to eat. Now we both greedily fill our pockets with them,- bending to drink the cup and save our lappets from the overflowing juice,–and grow more social with their wine. Was there one that hung so high and sheltered by the tangled branches that our sticks could not dislodge it?… It is a fruit never carried to market, that I am aware of,–quite distinct from the apple of the markets, as from dried apple and cider,–and it is not every winter that produces it in perfection.

He also argued that as soon as all apples were grafted and planted in rows, rather than growing wild in the hills and fields and against the back walls of cider heaps, there would be no more democracy on earth.

Thoreau’s Nightmare in the Yakima Valley
Thoreau’s Nightmare in the Okanagan Valley.

 Some background: just weeks before Thoreau began working on Wild Apples, the Battle of Shiloh saw 23,000 American men wearing the identical uniforms of soldiers, some blue, some grey, planted in long straight rows crowned with white trees in the shape of crosses. That was the kind of “civilizing” Thoreau was trying to escape.

The Shiloh Graveyard/Orchard that Thoreau Was Worried About

            In his last weeks, Thoreau wrote about wild huckleberries and other plants native to the American North East: a harvest he believed would eliminate the pressure to conquer new territories to produce ever-increasing volumes of land-hungry crops. He takes up the theme in Wild Apples as well.  

If a New England boy’s dealings with oranges and pine-apples have had more to do with his development than picking huckleberries or pulling turnips have, then he naturally and rightly thinks more of the former; otherwise not. No, it is not those far-fetched fruits which the speculator imports that concern us chiefly, but rather those which you have fetched yourself in the hold of a basket from some far hill or swamp, journeying all the long afternoon, the first of the season, consigned to your friends at home … What are the imported half-ripe fruits of the torrid South to this fruit matured by the cold of the frigid North?

            Thoreau’s half-ripe fruits are peaches. More on those in a couple days. The fruits of the north are apples, which you could pick yourself. Such was Thoreau’s metaphor for the state of the American union — a pair of lungs infected with the tuberculosis of war, fought over contrasting ideologies of human liberty and commerce. It is a howl of grief that concludes with a plea from the Bible:

            “Awake, ye drunkards, and weep! and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine! for it is cut off from your mouth. For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth of a great lion. He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig-tree; he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white. . . .Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen! howl, O ye vine-dressers! . . .” 

Joel 1: 5-8.

Slavery was averted in Oregon, due to the actions of good citizens, the war came to its bitter end, due to exhaustion and industrialization, and the long process of rebuilding took place. We’ll look at that over the next few days, but to start, consider this:

One White princess from each US state pouring a gallon of clean water over Grand Coulee Dam to Christen it.

The dam ended Indigenous salmon culture upstream, and at least 16,000 years of history. Here is Sherman Alexie’s poem of the end of the world,that took place right here. It looks like this:

Grand Coulee Dam

The original dam was to be the height of the low rectangular structures at its base, and was designed to pump water up onto the plateau, to fill the ancient riverbed called Grand Coulee with water, which would then be used to irrigate the Columbia Basin.

The Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is the nation’s second-largest U.S. Bureau of Reclamation irrigation project. At 670,000 acres under irrigation as of 2021, the project is still unfinished, as more than 1,095,000 acres are eligible to receive water in the project area, which covers parts of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, and Walla Walla counties in Eastern Washington.

The dam was raised to create power, which eventually created the plutonium, which created the first nuclear explosion, and the Nagasaki bomb. That racist history aside, because, after all, War has its own rules, the original plan was to irrigate the basin, to settle 15,000 poor black farmers from the South on it, and allow the land to turn poor black sharecroppers, unwanted in the South, into model citizens a long way from home. The irrigation project was stalled because of the Second World War, and when it was resurrected afterwards, the Black settlement plan was dropped.

However, when the new policies were implemented after World War II, what had been a good idea in the 1930s — small farms growing row crops — was quickly determined to be inefficient as agriculture in the post-war era became more mechanized with fewer laborers and larger farms using center-pivot sprinklers. Reclamation had anticipated 10,000 to 15,000 farms, but there never were enough small farmers to reach the levels anticipated to get land development funds from Congress. While 160 acres were allowed under the Columbia Basin Project Act, a majority of the lands were 60 to 120 acres, with some, such as Donald Dunn’s land, being only 80 acres. By 1962, the provisions of the Columbia Basin Project Act relating to the size of farms were abandoned in favor of a standard 160 acres per individual farmer or 320 acres for a husband and wife. By 1965 the average size of farms in the project area was just over 203 acres, and by 1967 there were 5,463 individual farms on the CBP. Farms continued to grow, to an average of 268 acres in 1992, but with only 2,050 farm units.

The original cost of the dam was $300,000,000 dollars, and the cost of the irrigation project was $316,411.00. Together, they amount to a subsidy of over $300,000,000 dollars for 2,000 farms, pushed through Congress on a racial program, and then deftly transferred to White hands. That is not democracy, whatever it is. Thoreau wasn’t far off.

Banks Lake

There’s no question that the irrigation doesn’t produce massive amounts of food. We’ll look at the costs to the North American food system in part 9 of this discussion, and the continuing racial pressures the system maintains in part 7. Here’s how things look:

I hope you’ll keep reading. Our food supply depends on understanding these forces.

6 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.