Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tomatoes and trains

Students in my OSU class in La Grande were asked to from groups of two or three, pick a crop or animal now grown commercially in the Northwest, and make short oral presentations explaining their subjects’ botanical or biological and geographical roots, and then follow them to the present. This is all part of the discussion of the Columbian Exchange and establishing in their minds the idea that farming and agriculture did not just originate in the Tigris-Euphrates, but also in what is now Peru and Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil. (And Asia and Africa for that matter.) Over half of all “world crops” originated in this hemisphere—think maize, tobacco, rubber, manioc, potato, and tomato!

So one group picked the tomato, and in the course of their presentation showed a slide with present-day world production. I think the US ranks third—I have already forgotten one and two, but Turkey is number four.

Which reminded me that in 1970, when I was on the Peace Corps staff in Turkey, I met someone from Heinz or Del Monte who was contracting tomato plantations in Turkey. I remember asking “why Turkey?” And learning that the commercial section of the US Embassy had sophisticated soil, climate, and growing condition information on Turkey—better than anything the Turks themselves had. Heinz—and/or Del Monte—stayed in regular touch with the ag and commercial sections of the State Department and their minions across the world, and here they were growing tomatoes in Turkey.

It so happens that the theme for the next class session—which was yesterday—was Isaac Stevens and the Treaty Period. We have attempted to “discover” what the entire region was like pre-contact, and then are following subsequent disruptions to the ecosystem—or ecosystems. The disruption catalog includes the horse, diseases, fur trapping, missionizing, and, currently, treaties and wars. We still have fish wheels and dams, tractors and irrigation systems to look at in the next few weeks.

Isaac Stevens is a very interesting character: first in his class at West Point; experience with Army Corps of Engineers and in the Mexican-American War; and campaigner for President Franklin Pierce. At age 37, due most probably to his political involvement, he was named Governor and Indian Agent for Washington Territory. But this was not enough for Stevens. He wrote and lobbied for a third plum, the survey of the northern route for a transcontinental railroad.

Explorers had found no easy “northwest passage” by water, and Congress, deciding that rail transportation was the ride of the future, had, in 1853 and 1854 directed the War Department to explore and survey four Railroad Routes from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, the northern route roughly between the 47th and 49th parallels.

My guess is that prior to the Civil War, there was no way Southern legislators would approve anything other than a southern route—the potential for additional free states was too great.

But at the time, Stevens was smitten with the idea of being the man who filled the Puget Sound with people and linked the nation east and west. His treaty making makes more sense in this light—combine and clean up the tribal situation on the West side of the Cascades, and leave room for a rail route to the north on the East side of the Cascades. And negotiate with those pesky Blackfeet so that the route won’t fall in the middle of Indian conflict.

So what does this have to do with tomatoes? Well, we happen to have Volume VI of the survey, published in 1857. This volume explored and surveyed an end route, one that would connect the Sacramento Valley in California with the Columbia River. The book is beautiful, with plates—some in color—of birds, fish, mammals, trees, and plants along the route, and it is practical, with geographical and geological information, distances, altitudes, longitudes and latitudes.

It is all that railroad entrepreneurs would need—along with rights to land—to build a railroad.  So the aha here—going back to tomatoes in Turkey—is that our government has always and forever, from Lewis and Clark to the internet, Leland Stanford to Bill Gates, done the groundbreaking work that paves the way for the private sector. 

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