So what do baseball, a little-known religious group and a land-use fight have in common? If you’re in Stanislaus County, the answer is: nuts. Almonds are the county’s top crop, bringing in a record-breaking $1.125 billion in gross income in 2013. Walnuts came in third (after the county’s other powerhouse, dairy).
Nuts aren’t just an economic powerhouse, though. They’re also key to the story of this region’s past, and future.
I have never before gone to a baseball game to tell a story about agriculture, but showing up at the minor league team’s game shows just how important nuts are to people around here. The team is called the Modesto Nuts.
Modesto residents Bob DeGrasse and Tammy Krause have season tickets, in a great location. “You put your beer right on the dugout,” says DeGrasse, sporting a Nuts baseball cap and T-shirt. “And you yell, ‘Go Nuts.’ ”
There’s been a team in this region since the ‘40s. In 2005, when they changed affiliation from the Oakland A's to the Colorado Rockies, fans got to vote on a new name, and Nuts won.
The mascots? Krause explains: “You have Wally the Walnut, Al Almond and Shelley Pistachio.” Shelley is new this season. The mascots goof around on the field between innings and pose for photos with fans, like a row of kids wearing team caps, some with the almond logo, some with the walnut logo. Seven-year-old Gino Brudnicki has made his choice based on his family’s business: “We grow almonds.”
Earlier in the day, Shelley the Pistachio posed for pictures at a country fair just west of Modesto, in a little unincorporated farming area called Wood Colony. Over 1,500 people from all over the area showed up to play games, check out the latest nut harvesting machinery and sign petitions to support Wood Colony’s continued independence from Modesto. Not everyone agrees about the exact boundaries of Wood Colony, but in recent amendments to the Modesto general plan, the city proposed bringing about 1,000 acres of this area under its jurisdiction. That could allow commercial development on what’s now farmland. People here are adamantly opposed. Signs line roads here with slogans like “Almonds not asphalt.”
Sherry Walker lives in Modesto but came out today to support Wood Colony, “There’s generations upon generations that grew up out here, and this is the one place where the city hasn’t touched. There’s too much history here. It just needs to be left alone.”
Walker actually represents a big part of that history. She’s wearing a long dress with matching cape and a prayer covering, like a sheer bonnet, over her hair. Some of the earliest founders of Wood Colony were from a religious group called Old German Baptist Brethren. They migrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. “Then they went to Indiana,” says local author and historian Beachler. “Then Missouri and Kansas and Ohio and North Dakota and out to California. They came first to Whittier down in L.A.”
Beachler explains that around 1900, a group of German Baptists that included his grandfather came here and started farming, and planted some of the earliest nut trees. Today about a third of Wood Colony residents are, like Beachler, practicing German Baptists. “It’s a peace church, you might say. It has a lot of similarities to Amish and Mennonites, but historically they’re not connected.”
One difference is the use of modern technology. Here, many German Baptists don’t own TVs but they drive cars. “Oh, they use plenty of technology,” Beachler says with a laugh. “They’re good farmers. I’m not saying that boastfully.”
Fourth-generation farmer Jake Wenger gives me a quick tour of Wood Colony’s orchards and farmhouses, which he identifies by the family names of their earliest owners. We stop to talk under a huge walnut tree, which Wenger says is California’s biggest. It’s over 100 feet tall, so wide that six people have to hold hands to reach around it. It was planted by one of Wood Colony’s earliest German Baptist founders.
“The German Baptists are, for lack of a better term, California Amish,” says Wenger, who grew up around German Baptists. They’re his neighbors, and friends. “By their religious guidelines, they don’t get involved in local politics. They don’t vote. They don’t register to vote.” Many of them are showing up at City Council meetings, however, along with their allies.
Highway 99 separates Wood Colony from Modesto. Jake Wenger and others fear what could happen if the city claims any land across the freeway. “It’s the proverbial camel’s nose in the tent,” Wenger says. “The camel sticks his nose in the tent, you better watch out because the rest of it’s coming.”
He’s part of a group that wrote a Stamp Out Sprawl initiative to go on a ballot next year. They have until Oct. 1 to turn in signatures. They’re hopeful: Stanislaus County voters usually support farmland preservation.
“They’re drawing that line in the sand, and they don’t want anyone to cross it,” says Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh, who in the past initiated similar measures. “I get that.”
Now, though, he says the city needs to think about its future, expand its tax base and plan for business parks and ag industry. Modesto could gain at least 100,000 residents in the next 40 years.
“We already know that we can fit extra people in our current footprint ” by increasing housing density, he says. “But it doesn’t leave us anywhere to put the jobs for those people.” Stanislaus County already has an unemployment rate over 11 percent.
Wenger resists development here, though, saying, this is prime farmland. That’s a USDA designation for some of the best agriculture soil in the world. Also, he says, the German Baptists couldn’t just relocate an entire religious community like they did in the early 1900s. He wants the city to look elsewhere. “I do agree, we can bring in manufacturing jobs. We just don’t need to do it in the best farmland in one of the oldest communities in the area.”
Nearby, farmer Gordon Heinrich takes me to an orchard where a mechanical shaker grabs tree trunks, rattling them so hard it looks like it’s raining almonds. Heinrich and everyone I met here pronounces the nut “amonds,” with a silent “l.” When I ask why, he tells me an old joke. “There is kind of an old farm story. That is, when we shake them off the tree, we knock the 'L' out of it, and that brings it to 'amonds.' ”
This land-use fight has shaken quiet, private Wood Colony. “When the idea of annexation first came along, it really awoke a sleeping giant, so to speak, out here,” says Heinrich.
Take the Wood Colony country fair. Residents would rather keep to themselves, but they held this event, inviting outsiders in to celebrate rural living, and get political support. While families take horse-drawn buggy rides past almond and walnut orchards, Claudia Bowser agrees to talk to me for this story, even though she doesn’t even own a radio.
“There are families here, there’s roots here. We don’t need cement and buildings and lifeless things.”
She says that once you take away prime farmland, you can’t replace it. “The Lord already knows what the answer is. I just pray it stays this good old countryside.”
It will, if people across the region continue to see agriculture as their identity, and vote as they have in the past.