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Our Valley, home, is a most unique place in the world

POSTED February 20, 2013 8:18 a.m.
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"Familiarity breeds contempt" is an old saying freighted in truth. How one feels about home is a complicated thing, I suppose. I've lived here in the Valley for most of my life and quite often the Valley doesn't get respect from the people who live here; or the people who don't ever want to live here.

I've lived in the Valley - formally called the Great Central Valley of California - since my parents brought me here in 1966. I was only five when we left Milpitas but I can remember the cool air breezing through our backyard on Temple Drive on most Bay Area evenings.

You need not live here long to realize that the Valley has both its blessings and curses. What what place doesn't have its detractions? At the top of my list would be the weather. We all know that summers can be both mild and pleasant one week and boiling hot and miserable the next. It's on those days when it hits 115 that I can honestly say I want out. Especially after you've read that 5,000 head of cattle have died in the sweltering heat and about 25 of them are bouncing around in the tallow truck two cars in front of yours and the smell of death is enough to make you apply the brakes, hold your breath and pull over hoping to rid the molecules of death in your lungs.

Everything is relative, though, and weather in the rest of the country can be worse. As bad as summer heat can get in our Valley, I am reminded that the Midwest can be miserably hot and muggy in the summer and cold, icy and snowy in the winter.

Valley winters are mild compared to the East, but hey, we have fog that makes life miserable at times. Still, it's a blessing to see newscasts of the East Coast digging its way underneath snow in February through April and to know that I'm walking around in shorts on a hot March day, watching the bees begin their seasonal labor.

Tallow trucks aside, I may complain but I truly enjoy the surrounding rural ag lands. I appreciate the open space after feeling claustrophobic after being in the Bay Area. Just as soon as I start singing the praises of where I live, I have an encounter with the infamous spray rig that has impeccable timing as it's turning at orchard's edge near the road and sprays a white mist of fungicide on my car. Number one, it's always right after you just washed your car, and two, you hold your breath hoping it dries before it can get whiffed into your lungs where it forms only God knows what.

I grew up down the road from a dairy between Oakdale and Escalon so the smell is something I am used to. When the aroma of wet cow manure hits my nose I get this nostalgic feeling that is not always shared by fellow Valley dwellers. Call that strange but that's a smell I grew up with and I don't mind it a bit.

Another curse has to be that the Valley is one of the dustiest places in the universe. Dust is thick, especially when almond harvesting season is on in fall and the sweepers are kicking dust so bad that a brown pall hangs over the Valley visible as high as the Altamont Pass. It's as if we are choking in the state's dust pan. It's so bad that Modesto/Ceres made a national list of the places not to live because of poor air quality.

Some say our Valley is boringly flat. Well, can't argue against that as the elevation of Ceres being 92 feet compared to the 316 foot elevation of Delano some 167 miles away.

This may not be the sexiest place in the world, especially as you're traveling through Pixley after a trip to glitzy Los Angeles, but please agree with me that our location is grand. In 90 minutes we can be walking in the State Capitol or admiring the Crocker Art Gallery. In two hours we can be walking across the Golden Gate Bridge or watching a ball game in AT&T Park. In the same amount of time we can be riding bicycles in Yosemite Valley or walking on fog shrouded Half Moon Bay the other direction. Lake Tahoe and its big name entertainment is hours away, as is Virginia City. The enchanting towns along Highway 49, including Jackson, Angels Camp, Sonora, Coulterville and Mariposa are hours away.

The Valley is unique. It's not to be taken for granted. And that's where the familiarity issue does us such a disservice. When the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture came to Ceres in 2009 he cited some facts that I sort of knew but didn't appreciate until I heard it from his lips: The Valley is of great importance to the nation and its health, citing that over half of the nation's fruits and nuts are grown in the Valley on three percent of all U.S. farmland acreage. The Valley also produces a total of 350 different crops. The almond milk that Bill Clinton touts as one of his weight loss secrets comes from almonds grown in the Valley (although Clinton's limo will never be sprayed with drops of fungicide). We need to be reminded that we feed the country and world and that's of huge importance.

I can appreciate being able to take an evening stroll of a river park and smell the fragrant aroma of river plants. Or run through quaint Knights Ferry and across their historic covered bridge dating back to the 1850s. Or attending our one of a kind festivals, such as the Ceres Street Faire, the Hughson Fruit and Nut Festival. Or being able to buy produce from the vast number of roadside stands scattered between Manteca and Escalon.

I enjoy strolling the county fair exhibits every July and admire the homegrown talents only to discover that I know this entrant or that one. The Valley has an immense pool of talent. Great people live here. Unfortunately the Valley has its troubling aspects. Gangs that have immigrated are disturbing the people, writing graffiti, doing their drive-by killings, doing their drug peddling, car thefts, robberies and other crimes.

I'd like to say that it isn't true but a lot of people look at the Valley as a place where uneducated second-class citizens and underachievers live. A sort of God forsaken place for dullards. Those who say that, after all, have reached the urban state of enlightment. That notion is based on another Valley curse: high unemployment, lack of high paying jobs, a workforce that is not properly educated or skilled, pockets of poverty, our huge meth problem and all the crime that comes with it.

In 2006 The Economist noted that our Valley has about the same percentage of residents in poverty as the Central Appalachian Region, a region long synonymous with poverty. However, a higher proportion of Valley households are receiving public assistance, even though the Valley has far more immigrants not eligible for welfare. Worse news came in the summer of 2009 as we learned that Stanislaus County incomes lagged behind 29 percent behind the rest of the nation. County residents earned $29,463 per year while personal incomes averaged $41,455 in metropolitan regions nationwide last year. Of the 366 metropolitan regions measured in 2008, Stanislaus incomes ranked 309th, San Joaquin was 318th and Merced was near the bottom at 355th.

Every place has its good and bad. I've had mostly a good experience in the Valley and I have to remain optimistic about things improving here for both Valley people and the environment. It's a great place to raise a family and spend your life.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know at jeffb@cerescourier.com
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