Cancer in My Town
Hughson is a small town about two hours south of Sacramento. The town is composed of one main street that has all of the stores, markets, banks, and restaurants. At the end of the main street there is a high school. A few houses surround the town. Everything else that composes Hughson is farms. There are more trees than people. However, a disturbing trend is occurring in my small town. Concrete is spreading like cancer over the once beautiful countryside. My town is being reduced to a gray and black filth of asphalt and concrete.
Hughson is losing its farming heritage at an alarming rate. Housing developments have been going in since 1993. However, in the past four years the cancer has spread out of control. Low interest rates combined with the high prices of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area make towns like Hughson an ideal place to live even though it takes one and half hours to drive to the Bay Area. The demand for cheap housing is up and developers are catering to it with little resistance from anybody.
The developing process starts by housing developers offering farmers between $100,000 and $200,000 per acre of land. That money, multiplied by 20 or more acres of land per farm, makes it a hard offer to resist. Developers then get rid of the trees and within six months the first houses are constructed. At this point everything that made the land unique and special, like the different creatures that make homes in the orchards and the changing personalities of the trees as their leaves change colors, is gone. The houses are offered in four or five different styles that the buyers can choose from. Aesthetically speaking the houses make me want to puke because they are boring and lifeless. The units are either one or two story and have nothing that is individual about them. Compared to the different shapes and types of trees, no two trees look completely alike, these houses are uninteresting. The housing developments are also inefficient because they take up around a half acre for six people at most. It is a wasteful use of land that is perfect for agriculture.
When the houses are built no thought is given to utilities or needs of the future community. This came about because a local man got the city council to exempt him from the mandates. This set a precedent and other developers have gotten the same exemption. Consequently there is now a moratorium on building until these issues can get settled. This is a prime example of how not to grow smartly. If the planners had not been greedy they would have thought ahead. Higher density planning would have also been implemented to make better use of the land. Money was the only object considered in the building of these houses.
Another factor in the developments is that farmers are able to make more money selling their farm than farming them. The cost of inputs, items needed to grow crops, have gone up dramatically over the last decade. At the same times prices for most commodities have not risen to compensate. Part of this has to do with our dependence on oil. Fuel, fertilizers and pesticides are derived from petroleum products. The price has gone up for oil at a fairly fast pace. The only thing farmers can do is operate on a thinner profit margin. Farmers have to go through the same amount of work and stress for less money. Getting paid a couple million dollars to sell the land is a logical choice. It is sad that farming has come to this.
Though the sprawl is occurring a mile away from my farm and my house the developments do affect our family. On the eastside of our property our “neighbor” is the City of Hughson Waste Treatment Facility. At the beginning of the development Hughson decided to build a sewer next to our property. They could have easily sent the waste to the county facility in a neighboring town. To obtain the land the city told the widow that owned the property they would buy it or condemn it. “They basically said we’ll buy it from you or take it from you,” said my father. My family fought hard by filing complaints and other legal means to keep the city from building it there. The sewer system has lowered the property value of our land if we ever decided to sell it to anybody, farmer or otherwise. If expansion of the facility is necessary, which it will be, then our land is the prime target. The property to the east and north of the plant is owned by two wealthy local businessmen that have a significant amount of power. To the south is a road. When the expansion happens Hughson will try put the brown, messy sludge ponds on land that my family has owned and farmed for ninety years.
The sewer facility has affected the surroundings in another way. The facilities used to store part of their waste in settling ponds by a river that runs along some of the property that we farm. In 1997 there was a bad flood and the settling ponds got washed out. All of the waste got put into the river and the water is still currently contaminated. Human waste cannot be good for the ecosystem of that river. My dad will not let us swim or eat fish caught in the water way. The sewer plant exists because of the housing developments and will likely expand on to my farm because of the sprawl.
In reflecting upon these facts, I cannot help to think about David Orr and his essay on water and oil. A number of Orr’s arguments against oil also come into play. Urban sprawl in Hughson is due to oil. It would be more expensive to live in Hughson if gas cost more because people could not drive quickly or cheaply to the Bay Area. Air would also be cleaner because gas would not be burned and put into the atmosphere as much. People are also “accepting ugliness as normal” and losing their “land ethic” or sense of responsibility for the land. It is clear that the developers are merely using the land to make a profit and nothing more. People are blind to this because the houses are “convenient,” big, and cheap. The do not realize the beauty and value of the land. That attitude may one day wipe out all of the farms in Hughson.
Hughson also exemplifies Orr’s argument about neighbor versus neighbor. In recent years a study was done that showed how much cheaper housing was for every mile away from San Francisco a person chose to live. This will inevitably put people with more money closer to the city. The less money someone has the further away their house will be from San Francisco. Inevitably this will cause a social and physical stratifying effect amongst people that own houses and work in the Bay Area. The rich will be situated closer the city. Before the mass development everybody, rich and poor, had equal and adequate public facilities because the town was small. This will likely change because of the need to build more facilities to support the growing population. The richer communities will get better roads, houses, and schools because they can afford to sue the builders. Poorer communities do not have the money to fight the injustices.
The state of Hughson brings to mind images of Saugus. Saugus was the place that I had to write my first paper about. The town is a forty five minute drive away from Los Angeles. My writing partner Tyler came from there. Like the housing developments in Hughson, Saugus sprawled. The cancer devoured the natural world around it. The victims were trees and wildlife. Nothing was sacred. Old oak trees were taken away from their primordial homes. The love for nature had been lost. The houses were the same cookie cutter houses that Hughson is starting to see. Tyler mentioned to me that traffic had gotten worse in Saugus in recent years. The traffic patterns are becoming heavier in Hughson also. Coming home from my high school in a neighboring town was horrible at six in the evening. What usually took twenty minutes instead took forty. Slowly Hughson is turning into Saugus.
Possibly the most disturbing part of Hughson’s “growth” is that nobody seems to notice. The landscape is changing before our eyes and life just goes on like nothing is happening. The only people that are not blind to the changes are the farmers. I have heard my dad’s peers talking about the changes and how they ruin the landscape. I also hear them talking about finally getting a big payday and moving their operations further away. Some to virgin ground in the foot hills where the development process will inevitably start again later. I do hear sounds of hope sometimes though. There are a couple of farmers that talk about how long their families have farmed the land in Hughson. Those farmers intend to keep farming like they always have for better or worse. I plan to never sell out and to carry on a tradition that started with my great grandfather. Hopefully I won’t be the only farmer left in Hughson.