"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

California -- Silk Capitol of the World?

by Don Baumgart

If California was a nation, it would be the tenth largest in the world in terms of its enormously productive economy.

Although agriculture is gradually yielding to industry as the core of the state's economy, California leads the nation in the production of fruits and vegetables, including carrots, lettuce, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, and almonds. The state's most valuable crops are grapes, cotton, flowers, and oranges. Dairy products, however, contribute the single largest share of farm income, and California is the national leader in this sector.

California's ranchers and beef producers contribute more than $1.35 billion every year to the state's agricultural economy, making beef the fifth leading agricultural commodity produced in the state. Today California has 22,000 beef producers raising 5.1 million cattle, ranking seventh in the U.S.

That's today. Take a look back and you'll see that California's road to farm riches was twisted and often washed away.

For most of a century the state's sole commercial industry was raising cattle. Discovery of gold in 1849 made meat a valuable commodity among miners, and the resulting high beef prices helped spread cattle raising across northern California.

Then came the famine years, 1863 and '64, with barely a trace of rainfall. Cattle died of starvation in the hundreds of thousands. Over-production to tap in on the gold miner supply line was already a financial factor for beef ranchers, many of whom were paying five to six percent a month on their ranch mortgages. The drought brought a virtual end to the business.

One writer said in print, "The cattle kings have been uncrowned."

What followed was a series of crashing agricultural failures that might make a good comedy script for Hollywood. J.M. Guinn writes about the struggle to find an economy in an essay titled, "Collapsible Booms."

Grain replaced cattle as the agricultural best bet. Cattle took themselves to market; grain required transportation, which was pretty much non-existent. Charges and commissions left grain growers taking mortgages on their land to make up the shortfall left by each season's grain crop. Soon the banks owned the farms.

The next big idea was -- are you ready for this? -- silk worms.

In 1867 the California Legislature passed an act giving $250 for each plantation of mulberry trees -- silkworm food. In 1869 the Los Angeles News boasted "...in two years...the silk products of this county will amount to several million dollars."

Initially, money made in the California silk trade was, much like a modern pyramid scheme, from selling silk worm eggs to wannabees. Some egg producers made $1,000 an acre. But, with the increase in the supply of silk worm eggs, prices fell and soon it was all supply and no demand.

Under the state's bonus plan, mulberry plantations had proliferated at an alarming rate, threatening the state's treasury with bankruptcy.

Worms died of starvation as the mulberry plantations died of neglect. And the silk this effort was supposed to produce?

"One piece of silk came out of all this," Guinn writes, "and was made into an American flag which flew over the state capitol." That single "Old Glory" cost the state a quarter of a million dollars in mulberry plantation bonuses.

Crop experiments involving tea, coffee, and cotton also failed. Labor for harvesting cotton didn't exist, and the market was 18,000 miles away in Liverpool, England, around Cape Horn.

Finally California's farmers became convinced that they needed, not a new product, but a home market of consumers. The Gold Rush had brought the world running and made California a state whose growing population soon provided the markets.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2005

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