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From grain to watermelons to grapes

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Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 7:16 am

Shaped by the land and climate and further molded by the economy and markets, Lodi’s agricultural landscape over the decades has evolved from grain to watermelons to grapes.

When settlers first tilled the land in northern San Joaquin County beginning in the 1850s, wheat was the main crop. Wheat was planted over huge acreages and farmed without irrigation. Northern San Joaquin County was part of California’s “wheat belt” in those early days. Lodi’s early farmers all grew grain as well as smaller plots of other crops including fruit orchards, vegetables and grapes.

But starting in the 1870s, competition from Midwest grain growers and overproduction locally caused wheat prices to drop. As more farmers settled here, farms became smaller, and farmers needed to find a more profitable crop.

A man named Northrup thought watermelons would grow well in Lodi. He convinced George Eddlemon, and the two men formed a partnership. They planted 80 acres of watermelons and became the first melon growers in Lodi, according to the story George Eddlemon’s son, Adolph, told the Lodi News-Sentinel in 1956.

Some doubted whether watermelons would grow without irrigation. But the water table was still just a few feet below the surface, and the melons thrived.

In the 1880s Lodi’s fame for its watermelons boomed. During summer harvest, the newspapers carried frequent boastful stories greatly embellished about the fertility of Lodi’s crop. Town leaders proudly proclaimed that Lodi was the “Watermelon Capital of the World.”

But the lucrative watermelon crop began to sour in the late 1890s. Like the grain market a couple of decades earlier, the market for Lodi melons fell.

The underground water table dropped, and dry farming was no longer productive. Efforts to build irrigation systems and capture water from the Mokelumne River were just beginning at that time. Another blow to the watermelon industry included an infiltration of pollen from squash plants that caused problems to the crop.

Lodi melons also lost market appeal because melons grown further south ripened earlier. Newspapers urged Lodi’s beleaguered farmers to change their course, switch crops and develop irrigation systems.

Riding the waves of boom and bust from grain to watermelons, Lodi farmers needed to find another profitable crop. Grapes, grown in small acreages in the region since the 1850s, became Lodi’s salvation.

Farmers tried other crops but none excelled like grapes. For instance, in the late 1880s, one man planted 2 1/2 acres of mission, black prince and muscat grapes. The grapes produced a fine profit of $100 per acre. His 2 and 1/2 acre vineyard was worth $2,500, a very impressive figure for those days. This man’s story, reported in the local newspaper, undoubtedly helped convince some farmers to switch crops.

Several different varieties did well in Lodi, but zinfandel and the tokay excelled. Farmers especially embraced the tokay. The tokay, an attractive, red grape with an eye-catching color, thrived in Lodi’s sandy soil where the hot summer days are offset by cool night breezes from the Delta. Lodi’s conditions were so perfect for the tokay that eventually 95 percent of the world’s tokays were grown here. The versatile tokay was a good table grape that held up well during the long rail trip across country to the fresh markets in the Midwest and East. The tokay also could be crushed into sweet wines.

By the late 1890s and early 1900s, Lodi farmers began digging up watermelon fields and planting grapes, especially the tokay. In smaller acreages, farmers also planted fruit trees including peaches and cherries.

As more farmers saw the value of water-hungry grapes, the need for dependable irrigation became apparent. The Lodi Sentinel in 1901 wrote that irrigation was an “accepted fact.” Henderson Brothers Hardware and Cary Brothers were busy installing windmills and pumps to draw water from the dropping underground water table on farms throughout the area.

In October 1901, there were five train carloads of wine grapes and 20 carloads of table grapes sent east in one week.

“Conditions were hard before we started raising grapes in the 1900s. No one noticed it especially because everyone was struggling. When we started planting grapes, everything seemed to pick up,” Adolph Eddlemon told the newspaper.

After the turn of the new century, Lodi farmers who switched to grapes prospered again. Grape packing and shipping companies and wineries began sprouting up. Lodi was producing 25 percent of the state’s table and wine grapes.

In 1901, the local newspaper stated that wine production was “the coming industry for this part of the state.” A Stockton newspaper reporter in 1905 wrote, “Owners of such vineyards declare that they have no reason to envy the hard-working presidents of life insurance companies.”

Lodi proudly called itself the “Tokay Capital of the World.”

For the next several decades Lodi farmers mostly produced tokay grapes for the fresh market. Men picked the grapes by hand, laid them in large crates. The crates were hauled to the packing sheds that usually were located next to the railroad tracks. Women then clipped the grape bunches and gently packed them in attractive baskets placed inside wood boxes. They were loaded into rail cars and shipped east to market.

But the tokay was also a wine grape, and wineries began appearing in Lodi after 1900.

Lodi’s grape industry survived the Prohibition years in the 1920s and actually prospered because the fresh market still demanded grapes.

After the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the winery business in Lodi escalated. By 1940, there were 18 wineries in the Lodi area that crushed more than 20 percent of the state’s total wine production. Lodi also was ranked first in the state’s fresh table grape shipments.

The wines made then were sweet dessert wines like sherry, port and champagne from tokays. In addition to being known as the “Tokay Capital of the World”, Lodi also called itself, “America’s Sherryland”.

Then in the 1960s, consumer tastes changed. People moved away from dessert wines and preferred table wines, like bulk reds and whites, and later quality varietal wines.

The last straw for the tokay was the development of the Flame Seedless grape. Consumers turned away from the tokay with its seeds. With both the fresh and wine markets depressed for tokays, Lodi farmers planted other varieties. The zinfandel grapes, already well established, and other varieties like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot were in demand for wine.

In 1986, Lodi’s wine industry and transition to premium varietal grapes got a credibility boost when this viticulture area was recognized officially as an appellation. Then wineries were able to label their wines with Lodi listed as the grapes’ origin. Lodi started becoming known for it’s quality wine and called itself the “Zinfandel Capital of the World.”

Today, with more than 80 wineries and more than 100,000 acres planted in premium varieties, Lodi’s famed product of wine grapes is firmly planted in the soil.

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