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Sunday, March 12, 2000

Produce crops proved profitable for Solanoans

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Once the early pioneer settlers had cleared their land and built their homes, the search for marketable produce began. During the first years, this included hunting for wild game and harvesting the abundant grasses for hay. Both commodities could be sold profitably to the markets in San Francisco and Sacramento.

From 1850 onward, cattle, sheep and wheat were the leading products in Solano County. The Mexican cattle of the rancho period was quickly replaced by better breeds, brought in droves from Southern California and even as far as the Midwest. The Solano County Herald reported on May 17, 1856: “On last Monday and Tuesday over a thousand head of cattle crossed on the Martinez Ferry Boat, on their way to Suisun Valley, being the property of Messrs. Stevenson and Ed McGarry. They were as fine a lot of Spanish cattle as we have ever seen. They were driven from Los Angeles county.”

Sheep, too, were imported in huge numbers. Sheep-raiser William Buck Long brought his sheep all the way from Missouri, at one time as many as 3,000 sheep.

Wheat production quickly overtook cattle in importance during the 1860s, when the increase in California’s population as well as wheat shortages in Europe due to wars and famine led to an increased demand and higher prices. By 1867, Solano County was the largest wheat producer in California. “Hurrah for Solano!!!” wrote the Solano Press on Dec. 11, 1867. “The Surveyor General, in his biennial report made to the Legislature, announces the gratifying fact that Solano County, in 1866, was the second largest wheat growing county of the State, and that, in 1867, she leads the van; being therefore the banner wheat producing county of the Pacific Coast.” And the Weekly Solano Herald reported on Jan. 2, 1869: “Wheat is our staple, and Solano now leads the other counties of the State in its production. ... This immense crop is now transported in wagons and by railroad to the various shipping ports of the county on the Sacramento River and Suisun Bay, and is then carried by sloops to San Francisco, with the exception of that which is carried to Vallejo by rail, which is loaded on shipboard at the Vallejo wharves, bound directly for Liverpool.”

Grapes were another profitable crop. One of the earliest vineyards planted in the area belonged to Josiah Allison. He acquired $40 worth of grape stock from a nursery in Napa County, which were, as his daughter Hester recalled, twigs to provide buds for grafting purposes.

A decade later, the Solano Press could write on Sept. 5, 1866: “Last Sunday we had the pleasure of visiting the extensive orchard and vineyard of Mr. Josiah Allison, a few miles east of Vacaville. Mr. Allison has probably the largest vineyard in the county - one of forty acres, containing 30,000 vines, and a young vineyard of fifty acres which promises well for the future. The cool and well arranged cellar and the excellent wine contained in it are both well worthy of inspection. The wine has a pleasant, champagne-like taste, peculiar to it alone, which some professed connoisseurs have attributed to excellent flavoring, but Mr. Allison disclaims all ‘doctoring’ practices in his wine making, the liquor being the pure juice of the grape. Its sweet and fascinating flavor is owing to the fact that he allows his grapes to thoroughly ripen before stripping the vines, and besides, the Vacaville climate has many advantages over that of Sonoma and Los Angeles. Mr. Allison will make this year from 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of wine, and can find a ready market for all of it.”

Though we have extensive records of Josiah Allison’s farming methods, the grape variety grown for this intriguing sounding wine remains unknown.

Table grapes were another successful crop. M.R. Miller was the first to try to ship his grapes to the East Coast. In 1863 or 1864, he packed his harvest in cork dust and shipped the grapes from Suisun to San Francisco, and from there by ship via Panama to New York. The venture failed, though, as the delicate grapes spoiled on the long journey. Until the coming of the railroad in 1869, the East Coast markets remained closed to Solano County growers.

Unfortunately, the advent of phylloxera (plant lice that attack the grape rootstock) about 1875 put an end to this success story. Only pockets of vineyards in Green Valley survived the disease. In the 1880s, table grapes were once again grown, this time on phylloxera-resistant root stock, but the vineyard industry did not recover until our own times.

Like the vineyard industry, wheat production in Solano County began to fail in the 1870s. Production in other parts of California increased, the transcontinental railroad opened up other new farming areas, Europe was finally able to grow more wheat at home rather than import from overseas and consequently, wheat prices began to fall dramatically.

Suddenly, farmers had to find new products to grow. Many had installed fruit orchards for their own consumption and for sale in local markets. The arrival of the railroad in Solano County by 1868 opened up new markets, and immediately fresh fruit was in high demand. A farmer could suddenly realize more income from the fruit of his small home orchard crop than from his whole wheat harvest.

Early horticulturists such as John Wolfskill and Ansel W. Putnam had already pointed out that our region was blessed with areas where fruit and vegetables ripened earlier than anywhere else in the country. The famous “Early Fruit Belt” was born.