SUISUN VALLEY — A person whose name has been lost to time gazed upon Suisun Valley in 1852 and saw an agricultural paradise just being born.
About 50 pioneer families lived there, with Landy Alford having turned his farming into some degree of wealth – his cottage compared to those found in New England, the person wrote. Newly planted fields of wheat and barley forced cattle-grazing into the hills. Fruit trees had just been planted in the valley and seemed to thrive in the fertile soil.
“Before another year rolls around, Suisun Valley will have become an immense garden, with the effect, we hope, of making its hospitable inhabitants happy and prosperous,” the person wrote in the April 14, 1852, Sacramento Daily Union.
Suisun Valley became an economic engine in coming years for Fairfield and Suisun City. It provided the produce that got taken to the small, fledgling towns for travel by train and by boat to market.
When a fire swept through a large section of Suisun City in 1906, the front page of the San Francisco Call said, “Fire Destroys One-Third of Busy Fruit Center.” That designation shows Suisun Valley’s impact on the local economy.
This impact remained intact when Thomas Gregory published his “History of Solano and Napa Counties” in 1919.
“The fruit industry of Suisun Valley is only in its beginning, but it is immense,” Gregory wrote. “No irrigation is needed for these orchards, but they earn each year probably a million dollars. Possibly a third of this amount is in the refrigerated carloads that roll eastward from Suisun every summer.”
Pickers swarm to the valley in the summer to harvest pears, apricots, cherries and peaches on farms owned by the Pierces, Chadbournes, Hatches and other families, Gregory wrote.
The dried fruit industry also proved a boom for local cities. Such packing houses as J.K. Armsby Co. and Ernst Leuhning Co. shipped fruit and nuts to foreign markets, as well as provided jobs for Fairfield and Suisun City residents.
As the years went on, Suisun City and Fairfield become less dependent on Suisun Valley for their economies. By the early 1960s, Fairfield’s westward growth had crossed what some residents called the “Great Divide” of Interstate 80 and was heading into the valley.
The Solano Irrigation District, which provides water to Suisun Valley farms, took note. In 1974, it saw a chance to keep the farmland it served from turning into subdivisions. Fairfield needed Lake Berryessa water for the new Anheuser-Busch brewery and SID threatened a lawsuit.
The two parties instead struck an agreement – neither would provide water for urban development in Suisun Valley until 2006. The valley’s development protections grew stronger in 1984, when county voters passed the Orderly Growth Initiative that funnels most growth from rural lands to cities.
Yet Suisun Valley farmers in a 1998 county-sponsored study cited numerous problems they said threatened their ability to make a living. They mentioned a global agricultural economy, traffic from nearby Fairfield subdivisions, regulations on pesticide, labor and other farming practices, a lack of local canneries and restrictions on parcel sizes.
“Economic viability and farming – that’s the bottom line,” an unnamed property owner said in the study. “If the farmer is making money, he is going to farm. If he doesn’t, then the pressure is going to be to sell out to speculative buyers.”
A 2002 agreement between Fairfield and SID extended the urban water moratorium through 2010 and created a Suisun Valley Fund to find ways to promote the valley’s agriculture.
Solano County by 2007 had started updating its General Plan and it launched Suisun Valley studies and held Suisun Valley workshops. Emerging from all of this was a vision for Suisun Valley, one that called for preserving agriculture, but also for allowing more businesses at select locations to help make the valley a tourist draw.
A vision statement included in the county’s 2010 Suisun Valley Strategic Plan spells out what the county hopes will someday be said of this longtime farming area:
“Suisun Valley is a unique farming region that supports profitable family farms and quality of life for all its residents. It is a destination for tourists seeking world-class wine, identifiable Suisun Valley farm products and a beautiful agricultural landscape with no fallow land. The Suisun Valley appellation is so famous that it creates new markets and increases demand for Suisun Valley wine and other farm products outside of the region.”
The quest is under way to make the vision a reality. The kind of economic success that came so easily to Suisun Valley a century ago takes more planning and work today.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.