Thesis: Geography of California

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California Geography

Fresno: The desert that became an agricultural Mecca gives its bounty at a great human cost

The state of California is often associated with the Gold Rush -- people came from all over the world to secure their fortune in the territory of the West. Those who did not find wealth lying on California's dry and craggy rocks found wealth in other sources, such as land, the movie industry, ranching, and agricultural produce. Fresno has often been described as a kind of agricultural miracle, a land that manifests the possibility for the dessert to be made green with fertility and prosperity. Humans engineered the ability of Fresno to be used for food, and through careful cultivation the types of crops that can be harvested in the dry region parallel those found in the Mediterranean of Europe, even though the climate is far harsher. The greater aridity of the San Joaquin Valley of central California has yielded impressive dividends for rich agricultural firms. Yet for many workers who toil the land, often illegally, the bounty of Fresno comes at a high price.


Fresno, like all Californian cities, has its own character. The diversity of the state of California is exemplified in its climatic and agricultural variety: some areas of California are so dry they are ideal wine-making regions, while others are nearly arid, almost desert-like in their weather conditions. The area now known as Fresno County was once a barren desert and was only made habitable through the use of irrigation and electricity. Early Spanish and Mexican settlers and missionaries largely avoided the inhospitable region. The name "Fresno" means ash tree in Spanish, and derives from the many ash trees that grow by the Fresno river, but other than giving Fresno a name, these settlers avoided the area in favor of more promising territories ("Fresno, Greenwich Mean Time, 2009).

Fresno's true beginnings as a state can be traced to 1872, "when the Central Pacific Railroad, pushing southward through the Central Valley, reached the site. Fresno's steady growth began when irrigation was introduced" (Drury 2009). An elaborate system of irrigation, known as 'Church Ditches' were developed by the small community of the Moses Church, largely made up of hardy pioneers. Thanks to the Moses Church, agriculture would become a core part of the modern economy of the region. These ditches and canals "transformed the barren desert of Fresno County into rich soil, thus enabling extensive wheat farming in Fresno County" ("Fresno, Greenwich Mean Time, 2009). Now Fresno County is America's leading agricultural region, producing $3 billion per year and over 200 commercial crops (Drury 2009).

Fresno's most famous crop is that of the raisin. Fresno produces about 60% of the world's raisins and about 90% of the raisins sold in America (Drury 2009). Yet the ability of Fresno to produce raisins was discovered only by accident, when a wine producer "accidentally let some of his grapes dry on the vine in 1875" (Drury 2009). Eventually, Fresno's significance as a transportation hub on the Central Pacific Railroad would be dwarfed by its importance to agriculture in California. The desert was made green, and the dry climate, once irrigation was used, proved ideal for wine cultivation: "In the irrigated fields surrounding Fresno, grapes, cotton, and figs are grown" (Drury 2009). Today, food processing is the area's major industry, despite the overall decline of the importance of agricultural nation-wide. "Grapes are crushed to make wine and are dried to make raisins in one of the world's largest dried-fruit processing plants. The manufacture of farm machinery, transportation equipment, and vending machines is also important" for Fresno's many grain and cattle ranches (Drury 2009).


However, there is a dark side in Fresno's ability to make the desert green for agriculture and to feed the world. The relatively cheap cost of a bowl of raisin bran cereal comes at a high and hungry price to those who pick and process the crop. "The workers who cultivate California's extremely fertile farms often struggle to meet their… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Geography of California.  (2009, November 29).  Retrieved August 20, 2019, from

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"Geography of California."  29 November 2009.  Web.  20 August 2019. <>.

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"Geography of California."  November 29, 2009.  Accessed August 20, 2019.