Native Americans originally occupied the Sierra Nevada Mountains and had a society based primarily on hunting and gathering. In 1848, with the commencement of the California Gold Rush, an influx of settlers came to the Sierras Nevada Mountains looking for gold. Agriculture (farming and ranching) quickly developed, initially to feed the miners, but then as a stand-alone industry that remains a major industry in California today.
Agriculture During the Gold Rush (1848-1855)
By the end of 1848, after discovery the initial discovery of gold in California, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 men from California, Oregon, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands arrived in the foothills. Within five years, approximately 300,000 people migrated to the gold camps and the boom towns of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, arriving from all over the world.
El Dorado County, where gold was first discovered by James Marshall, quickly became the most populated county in the state. By 1852, it had a population of 40,000 and Nevada County had a population of 20,000 people. Settlements such as Grass Valley, Nevada City, Placerville, Gold Run, and others sprang up throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains, primarily to supply goods and services to the mining camps. This growing population generated a demand for various support businesses, such as lumbering, hauling of supplies, mercantiles, and food production. Farming developed in the foothills during the 1850s to meet the needs of the mining camps. Most farming was done by hand, without machinery, and was very labor intensive.
The Gold Rush peaked in 1852 and was effectively over by 1855. The accessible surface placer deposits found in the rivers were quickly mined out. The mining industry transitioned to hard rock (lode) mining and hydraulic mining. Many of the Gold Rush miners moved on to new mining discoveries in Nevada, the Yukon, Idaho, British Columbia, Alberta, or elsewhere. Some stayed in the Sierra Nevadas and transitioned into agriculture, timber, or other opportunities.
Agriculture During the Age of Westward Expansion and the U.S. Agricultural Revolution (1856-1910)
Local agriculture remained in the foothill region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and continued to supply the local mining industry and the growing population of California after the end of the Gold Rush. Goods were subsequently sold to the booming mining operations that grew in Virginia City and in other towns in Nevada. A growing shipping industry in California and the completion of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869 allowed goods to be shipped to the eastern U.S. or overseas to other countries. Goods also supplied to the cities that began to grown in California, including San Francisco and Sacramento.
In the mid-1800's, the U.S. adopted a policy of expansionism (Manifest Destiny with the goal of establishing a single nation, from coast to coast. This expansion was fueled by immigration from Europe and other counties to the U.S., growing urbanization of the east coast, cheap land to the west, and a desire to block expansion of Mexico from the south and Britain (Canada) from the north. This policy resulted in major impacts to the indigenous Native American population as settlers moved westward, pushing them off land. This lead to local skirmishes and wars between the settlers, military, and various tribes, relocation of Native Americans to reservations, and indoctrination of Native Americans into western culture through forced education and religious practices. Agriculture, mining, and timber interests, whether individuals or corporations, often displaced Native Americans. The Preemption Act of 1841, the Swamp Act of 1850, the Homestead Act of 1862, the Mining Act of 1872, and the Dessert Land Act of 1877 where all mechanisms put in place by the U.S. government to encourage westward expansion and settlement of land - especially for agricultural purposes. These Acts allowed land acquisition at little or no cost, subject to developing the land.
In 1884, hydraulic mining was effectively shut down in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the Sawyer Decision. This left hard rock (lode mining), agriculture, and timbering as the main local industries in the Sierra Nevada in the late 1800's. Many small mining claims were being amalgamated together into larger mines during this period due to economic conditions. Similarly, many smaller agricultural land holdings were being amalgamated into larger land packages for economic reasons. Dredge mining commenced in the Yuba Goldfields in 1897.
Hand power was used primarily for agriculture prior to 1860. This was subsequently replaced by horsepower and the introduction the plow and other machines such as reapers. Steam power began to replace horse power and the tractor was introduced. Farming became increasingly mechanized. Other farm machines were developed in rapid succession: the automatic wire binder, the threshing machine and the reaper-thresher or combine. Mechanical planters, cutters, huskers and shellers appeared, as did cream separators, manure spreaders, potato planters, hay driers, poultry incubators and many other inventions. Between 1860 and 1910, the number of farms in the United States tripled, increasing from 2 million to 6 million, while the area farmed more than doubled from 395 million to 870 million acres.
In 1862 the Morrill Land Grant College Act allotted public land to each state for the establishment of agricultural and industrial colleges. These were to serve both as educational institutions and as centers for research in scientific farming. Congress subsequently appropriated funds for the creation of agricultural experiment stations throughout the country, including California and also granted funds directly to the Department of Agriculture for research purposes.
Agriculture During the Great Wars and Depression (1911-1950)
After the turn of the century, large-scale logging, mining, and agriculture became the dominant economic activities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The network of flumes and ditches built by the earlier hydraulic miners were gradually taken over and adapted for power, irrigation, and other uses. The use of mountain streams as a water source and reservoirs for water storage dramatically changed agricultural practices in the Sierra Nevadas and the Central Valley below.
In the foothills the area in orchard crops expanded rapidly in response to the organization of irrigation districts and the rehabilitation or new construction of irrigation facilities. Pears and other fruit trees were planted on a number of ridge areas where fertile soils and water were available, as in the regions adjoining Placerville, Auburn, Grass Valley, Oroville, and Paradise. An expansion of crop agriculture during and following the World War I (1914 -1918), due to demand, brought renewed prosperity to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The gold mining industry began to decline between 1915 and 1928. This was due to the fixed price of gold at approximately $20 per ounce and rising labor and supply costs. The Great Depression came from 1929 to 1939, seeing a reliance return for gold as a currency. In 1934, the fixed price fo gold was raised to $35 per ounce. This brought a mining boom to the Sierra Nevada Mountain and gold production increased dramatically. The Great Depression did not have a large impact on the Sierra Nevada Mountains as it did in many parts of the U.S., in part due to the return of gold mining to the state.
During World War II, the U.S. government enacted War Order L-208. This shut down gold mines in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and moved their manpower, equipment, and supplies to more strategic industries, including mining of iron ore, copper, and other metals needed for the war effort. When War Order L-208 was lifted in 1945, many of the mines had been flooded and closed, never to reopen. Mines tried to obtain compensation from the U.S. government for the impacts of the shut down, but were unsuccessful. They subsequently tried to get the U.S. government to increase the price of gold above $35 per ounce. The government refused and by the mid-1950's, most of the gold mines in the U.S. (including the Sierra Nevada Mountains) had shut down.
During this period, trucks, tractors, and other mechanized farm equipment began to be commonly used. Highways were built into the foothills and used to transport goods to market. The workforce on farms became smaller with mechanization and, with World War II in particular, industrialization of the nation resulted in movement of farm workers to manufacturing and to urban areas. Small subsistence farm operators remained, often dependent on other jobs as their main source of income and farming became a "part time" job for some. Larger farms also grew, selling to local, in state, or export markets.
Agriculture and Suburbanization/Gentrification of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (1951 to Present)
Between 1850 and 1910, the population of California grew steadily from about 100,000 people to 2.3 million people. Between 1910 and 1950, the population increased from 2.3 million people to 10.6 million people. In 1950, the population growth rate increased further, and the population rose from 10.6 million people to 37.2 million people by 2010. Population growth produced local and in-state markets for agricultural products. However, California also exported to other states, Canada and Mexico, and overseas to other countries. Highway construction, including the interstate highway system, led to trucks being a primary method for transporting goods to market. Improved highways decrease the time to get goods to market.
Population growth in California, especially after the 1970's, resulted in "suburbanization" and "gentrification" of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many retirees moved from the San Francisco Bay, Sacramento, and other urban areas of California to purchase less expensive property in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Many people retired to the former mining communities such as Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Placerville - many of these communities depressed since the gold mines shut down in the mid 1950's. Suburbanization and gentrification resulted in many social changes to existing rural communities, often to the resentment of local residents that lived there.
Increase property taxes and land policy (e.g. zoning) led to many farms being broken up, with farmland re-zoned and developed for housing or other uses. Many developers came in, acquired farms, and redeveloped the land for housing at considerable profit. Today, there are many "ranchettes", or small hobby farms, that are less than 10 acres in size that were once larger farms. The number of wineries has also increased as farmers and hobby farmers transform traditional farmland for growing grapes. The children of farmers can not, or do not want to, make a living at traditional farming and seek employment in other occupations.
In general, California moved from being a resource driven economy in 1950 to a service driven economy today, with most of the employment found in government, education, health services, tourism, retail, and construction. The traditional resource industries (mining, agriculture, and timber) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have been heavily impacted by government policies - many needed for conservation and management of our natural resources. However, many of these policies have been political in nature, supported by special interest groups or developers, and have resulted in unnecessary economic burdens on farmers and ranchers with no environmental or social benefit. These burdensome policies have negatively impacted the resource industries in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including agriculture.
Going forward, access to water may well become the issue of our time. Global warming has potential to melt the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This snowpack and the associated snowmelt has been the source of water for agriculture in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the same time, water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains has been harnessed to supply irrigation water to farms in the Central Valley and through canal systems to southern California. Rising population, drought conditions, protection of the Delta and fisheries are leading to increasing competion for water in California - including rights to that water.
The Sierrans for Responsible Resource Development (the "Sierrans") support a vibrant agricultural resource industry in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This includes traditional agriculture (farming and ranching), hobby farming, organic farming, and other types of agriculture. The Sierrans support protection of farmland, including water supply, for use by future generations, as well as use of responsible and sustainable farming practices. The issue of climate change and access to water will be a major concern to agriculture in the 21st century, and the Sierrans believe that science and legislation should protect our agricultural resource for current and future generations.