Getting to know a new hometown

08/12/2010 12:00 AM |

The last few weeks have been taken up with unpacking and trying to find where I’ve put things. But they’ll emerge eventually; now it’s time to find out about this place where I’ve come to live, 3,000 miles from Greenport.

Merced is located in the San Joaquin Valley in Merced County, one of California’s top-producing agricultural areas. The valley itself is sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl because of the fruits and vegetables it produces. The word valley is important here, a distinguishing descriptor. For example, the local public television station is called Valley Public Television. It offers programming in both English and Spanish.

For me, Merced is distinguished by its trains. Wherever you are and whatever the hour, you are likely to hear a train whistle. I love to listen and think about where the trains have been, where they’re going, the times I’ve traveled on them and when I might ride them again. Two different sets of single tracks run through the town, and you have to cross them to get from north to south. One track handles freight and Amtrak passengers, the other, freight only, and these trains can be very long.

I have been lightening my unpacking chores by making afternoon expeditions, each of which has helped me feel more grounded. Some of these are necessary, like the trip to Sears to get a vacuum or to the vet to get Mecca’s prescription diet. Some are significant as well as exploratory, crossing the tracks to get a library card and to register to vote. Some are a matter of self-interest: joining a gym with a pool and going to the farmers market.

The gym is exciting. Its pools are all outdoors (two big ones, a small one for kids and a large kind of Jacuzzi); in the winter the main pool is covered with a bubble to keep it warm (unless the wind is too strong). The gym also offers free classes, such as water aerobics and yoga, as well as exercise machines, and it opens at 5 a.m. The manager of the facility is one of the yoga teachers.

The farmers market offers vegetables that are much the same as on the North Fork, with a wider variety of squashes and the addition of black-eyed peas. As for the fruits, this is plum, peach and apricot season, along with the ubiquitous strawberries, which last until November. A new fruit delight is a pluot, a juicy combination of plum and apricot. Merced is also walnut and almond land, and I noticed people happily munching samples as they checked out the various stands.

A young boy was selling organic eggs at the market, and his mother filled me in on the enterprise. She and her husband have free-range chickens that live in a kind of trailer consisting of nesting boxes and covered with a transparent fabric. The chickens can leave the trailer at will and forage in the orchard where it’s parked. Twice a day the trailer is moved, so the chickens fertilize the whole orchard and, of course, always have plenty of fresh forage. At night, the trailer’s covering, along with flashing lights, keeps coyotes at bay.

Year-round, the family’s three children gather the eggs, wash them by hand and package and sell them. A portion of the sale price goes to them, half of which is banked for their college future.

For all the differences between one coast and another, some things seem to be the same. The idea of sustainable farming has its converts here in Merced as well as on the North Fork. A big difference, however, is the huge amount of farmland here and the presence of factory farms, which account for much of the area’s agricultural production. The expanse of farmland has also attracted developers, and the kind of the pressures the North Fork has experienced are beginning to be felt here.

I remember Long Island’s potato farms in the 1950s and have seen their evolution. Looking at the vast fields here, I find myself hoping we are all wiser now and will protect them better.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and a former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.