Corn nuts and bullet trains: High-speed rail slices through the Central Valley

Feb 13, 2017

 

This is Part 2 of a four-part series about high-speed rail in California. Part 1: First Stop, Fresno. Part 2: Corn nuts and the bullet train. Part 3: Will the train be affordable?. Part 4: San Jose to San Francisco — easier said than done. Listen to the whole show: Inside High-Speed Rail.   

Kole Upton’s family has been farming in the Central Valley since 1946.

“My dad lived right up there, my son lives there now,” he points to a ranch house on the edge of a field. “My brother lives over there, my daughter lives over there, so this is a true family farm.”

The Uptons grow a thousand acres of wheat, almond and pistachio trees, and corn.

“The corn goes for Corn Nuts®, those fast food things you get, I personally don't like 'em but we grow em,” Upton says.

The Corn Nuts conundrum

Corn Nuts are those fried crunchy corn kernels you can usually buy at gas stations that feel like they can break your teeth. Upton says his farm supplies 20 percent of the corn used for Corn Nuts. The crops are grown in a perfect rectangle, with an irrigation canal at the border of the long sides. And when I first visited Upton last summer, the High-Speed Rail Authority wanted to lay their tracks right through this rectangle of corn.

Upton first learned about this plan in 2009, in a letter he got from high-speed rail.

“Saying ‘congratulations you've been selected to be in the high-speed rail route, please be prepared to have archaeologists, hydrologists, every kind of ‘ologist’ on your land,’” he recalls.  “So, I called them up and I got this nice lady and I said ‘well what if we don't want you on our land?’ and she says, ‘well I guess you can say ‘no’ and I said I'm gonna say ‘no.’”

And Upton really wasn’t happy about that. He wouldn’t be able to do his job. He wouldn’t be able to farm. It’s not just that there would be a 200 mph train speeding through his fields a few times a day. He says if the train cuts through his farm like this, it would cut off his water supply.

High-Speed Rail could threaten the water supply on Kole Upton's farm.
Credit Angela Johnston

“So I have lines this way, lines that way. They're going to totally destroy that,” he says.

So Upton got involved. He read up on everything to do with high-speed rail. He hired a lawyer. He tried to work with the Authority and present his case to them.

“I have one consultant tell me in 2009, he said ‘Upton, you're wasting your time. We're going to go this route.’ He says ‘I don't care what the cities say, I don't care what the counties say, I have a federal and state mandate’ and he said ‘Farmers mean nothing.’ And by golly so far, I can't say that he's been wrong.”

Upton and other farmers have been trying to get high-speed rail to find other ways to route the train for almost eight years.

“Go down an extra road,” says Upton. “I don't care if they went down the end of my field. I gave them a route at the end of my ranch.”

The wye

But it’s not that easy. Upton’s farm sits in a pretty unique location. It’s where high-speed rail wants to put something called the ‘wye.’ It’s a place where the train, coming from the south, can either go northeast toward Sacramento or northwest toward Silicon Valley -- forming a literal letter Y.

The proposed route for the 'wye' will cut through some farmers' land.
Credit California High-Speed Rail Authority

The Rail Authority says they’ve considered at least 24 different options for this segment -- and this was the best one at the time. That was until last winter.

“Quite a bit has changed,” Upton says.

He tells me the High-Speed Rail Authority has now agreed to consider that road at the end of his ranch, a road named Road 11. His corn nuts are safe, for now.

“It hits it on the lower end, so I can no longer say that I’m a ‘NIMBY,’ not in my backyard, because now I’m an ‘IMBY,’ in my backyard,” Upton says. “But it’s better than cutting through the middle of it, which it did.”

We hop in his truck, and head to the new location, near Road 11. Right now there aren’t any crops planted. It’s just dirt, and some old, dried-up corn cobs.  Right now, the train tracks are only supposed to stretch 100 feet into his property. But his neighbors won’t be as lucky.

UPTON: It hits it on the lower end, so I can no longer say that I'm a 'NIMBY,' not in my backyard, because now I'm an 'IMBY,' in my backyard.

“What it’s gonna do, it’s gonna come this way, and at some point, it’s gonna veer out, probably take out his house and his barn and everything else,” says Upton, talking about his neighbor.

High-Speed Rail's original plan was going to dissect Kole Upton's Corn Nuts farm.
Credit Angela Johnston

Seth Rosso, Upton’s neighbor, is actually out on his tractor near where we’re standing. We can see him turning over the soil, getting ready to plant tomatoes, for ketchup. Upton calls him to come over and talk to us.

Rosso hadn’t heard the news -- that the Authority is now planning to go through his farm, rather than through Upton’s.

“We have four sons that are five-years-old and younger and we keep a close hand on them,” says Rosso. “I’m very scared to have more activity around here than what we currently do have, that’s a concern of mine.”

I ask him what he’d do if High-Speed Rail does end up cutting through his farm.

“I don't know. I haven’t considered that,” he says. “I would be sad.”

High-Speed Rail’s response

The High-Speed Rail Authority says they understand it’s been really difficult for farmers.

“Of course, we don't take this lightly,” says Diana Gomez, the Central Valley regional director for California High-Speed Rail. She’s in charge of working with farmers and other landowners who are affected by this project.

“Primarily my job is to ensure that the people that we are impacting, that we do mitigate and we do address all of the concerns and that we treat them with the utmost respect and compassion because, yes, we do understand that it is in some cases going to change how they do business, how they move around their farms,” she says.

And she admits that early on, they weren’t handling their negotiations with farmers very well. But, Gomez says they’ve learned from some of their mistakes.

“And I know that it's not that simple, but I think we're in a better position to to be able to commit to them.”

GOMEZ: We know that it is painful, so we try to do everything we can to minimize what they're going through.

I tell Gomez about Seth Rosso, how he’s worried about his kids playing on his farm.

“The train itself will be behind the fence, so it won’t be that easy to just get out,” she responds. “You won’t be able to easily jump onto our tracks. But I do want any person, any property owner that is impacted to know that we are doing our best to ensure that the process is a smooth one. We know that it is painful, so we try to do everything we can to minimize what they're going through.”

The water problem

Diana Gomez was born and raised in the Central Valley. I ask her if getting water here should be more important than building a train.

“Why do we have to choose?” she asks. “We've never had this kind of investment into the Central Valley. So why would we not want that? From our perspective, it isn't one or the other. It's really about both of them.”

A compromise

While High-Speed Rail officials like Gomez think the project can be a win-win, Kole Upton feels the opposite.

UPTON: I don't mind a biopsy, but I don't want an autopsy. So, if you want to take a little bit fine, but if you're gonna kill me to do it, then I don't want to do it.

“Ok, it’s a no-win position for a lot of people, someone’s going to be impacted,” he says. “I’m going to be impacted on this. Is it the worst thing that's ever happened to me? No.”

But Upton worries the other route, the one that cuts through his corn nuts farm, could be back on the table if this new route doesn’t get approval from higher-ups, like the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington DC and the Army Corps of Engineers. If that happens, it’s back to square one.

“I don’t mind a biopsy, but I don’t want an autopsy,” Upton says. “So, if you want to take a little bit fine, but if you're gonna kill me to do it, then I don’t want to do it.”

UPTON: I mean you may as well improve something. If you're just going to have a high-speed rail from Chowchilla to Wasco you're not going to have a lot of ridership.

The Authority thinks the decision should be finalized early this year. If everything goes smoothly with the most recent proposed route, construction would start in Upton’s backyard as early as 2019, only six years before the date the first trains are supposed to run. And Upton thinks that if they start, they may as well finish it.

 

“I mean you may as well improve something,” he says. “If you're just going to have a high-speed rail from Chowchilla to Wasco you’re not going to have a lot of ridership.”

The High-Speed Rail Authority hopes some of those potential riders will be people who have moved out to the Central Valley for cheaper housing, and are commuting into the Bay Area for work. Many people have already begun that move.

To learn about how high-speed rail may affect commutes from the Central Valley to the Bay Area, listen to the next story in this series.