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Farming & Ranching

Agriculture was always a tenuous undertaking in the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra, but determined ranchers and farmers worked hard to make the most out of the area's land, arid conditions, and seasonal water supplies. Resting on the edge of the Great Basin, the Owens Valley averages about 6-7 inches of precipitation a year, so irrigation was the key to virtually all aspects of farming and ranching in the region. The Owens Valley Paiute were the first to understand that the snow-fed streams and creeks coming off the Sierra were the most reliable sources of water for agriculture. The Paiutes created ditch systems in the Bishop area that irrigated indigenous plants. After the California Gold Rush of 1849, white settlers came to the Owens Valley and took over those basic irrigation works, and then set about improving and expanding them. From the 1860s to the 1880s, farming and ranching centered near Independence, thanks to the market for food and supplies created by the Fort Independence army outpost. Around Bishop, cattle and sheep were added to the agricultural mix. Indeed, the first stockman in the area was Samuel Bishop, for whom the town is named. The key markets for livestock were the mining camps in Inyo County, and to the north, such as Bodie and Aurora. In the late 19th century, massive sheep herds, some numbering more than 8,000, started to be driven through the Owens Valley from the south, a practice which continued into the mid-20th century.

The lack of reliable transportation to outside markets hindered the development of more large-scale, intense agriculture. The inability to ship agricultural goods to markets outside of the Owens Valley and the immediate vicinity resulted in the development of a small-farm model, with a combination of livestock and mixed, crops, such as hay, oats and other feed crops for livestock. A fair number of orchards were also established, with Manzanar being the most successful example. A robust exchange of products from the area's ranches and farms to local residents sustained both. Even the arrival of the Carson and Colorado Railroad in 1883 didn't spur increased agricultural production, since the train only ran from Dawin to Carson City, and was primarily used to move mineral products from area mines out and mining supplies into the area. The Southern Pacific standard gauge line arrived in southern Inyo County in 1910, but its main goal was to bring men and supplies that were being used to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct. By then, the City of Los Angeles had purchased dozens of farms and ranches solely for the water rights, and was well along with its plan to divert the valley's water south to Los Angeles. As Los Angeles bought more land in the early 20th century, farming and ranching started a long, slow decline. However, despite what eventually became the wholesale purchase of land in the Owens Valley by Los Angeles, agriculture has remained a crucial and viable part of the area's economy. Los Angeles leased land to farmers and ranchers, and those who didn't sell continued to work their land. Cattle operations become a dominate part of the modern agricultural scene, as ranchers grazing their herds on National Forest land in the summer, and the pastured them on private and leased land on the valley floor.