Agriculture Still Thriving Along the Bear River

The Chicago Park region of Nevada County, just over the Bear River from Colfax on Highway 174, is a hotbed of small farm agriculture. New development ranchettes producing nothing other than higher real estate prices and increased storm runoff are beginning to outnumber the real farms, but the commitment to agriculture and a rural lifestyle remains strong.

Organic and conventionally grown crops include a broad mix of fresh vegetables, artichokes, melons, pumpkins and gourds, peaches (when spring hail doesn't get them all first as it has the last two years), apples, cut flowers, micro greens, lambs, nursery crops, and Christmas trees.

Just off Lower Colfax Road, graveled Judy Road takes you to Bakbraken Acres, where John Drew has been farming within four miles of the Bear River canyon since 1969. His roots in the watershed run back to 1856 when the first of his family, led by his great grandfather Robert Jones, arrived from Cornwall to be Sierra foothill hard rock miners. Grandfather Edwin Drew was born in Grass Valley in 1874.

His mother's side, the Bone family, provided the farmers. They settled in the Grass Valley area in 1888 and Drew said he remembered his grandfather, Arthur Bone, raising dairy cows and growing vegetables on land adjacent to what is today the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

Drew started farming as a boy growing up and working on the 18-acre family farm in Citrus Heights, that first took the name Bakbraken Acres in 1947. He moved to the Sierra foothills for the first time in 1963 and settled permanently on his 40-acre piece in Chicago Park in 1974, bringing the farm name with him. The 10 acres that he farms are certified organic. From May to October, Drew and his partner, Mary Walker, sell their crops at eight local farmer's markets every week, including a once-a-week morning market on the farm.

"Local farmer's markets are the best place to buy local food and the best way to support local agriculture," Drew said. "There's also less energy use involved in producing local food, but the biggest reward for me are the looks on my customers' faces when they taste my produce."

Drew uses part of his time not taken up with farming to serve on the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) Board of Directors. One of the perks of working for the water district is that it gets him out to his favorite spot on the Bear River four or five times a year. "It's an untouched section of canyon between the Dutch Flat afterbay and Rollins Lake," he said. "It's exactly as it has been forever; a really sweet area."

His perspective on the Bear River is from a lifetime of observation. As a boy visiting relatives in Grass Valley he recalls frequently seeing the Bear River as a dusty dry streambed in summer.

"Before the Yuba/Bear Water Project was constructed, there would often be no water in the Bear in summer from Dutch Flat down to the western reaches," he said. "There would just be some stagnant pools with virtually no flow. It's only because of that project that the river flows all year round now."

Having water in the Bear all year 'round has wrought immense changes, he said, some of which bring great benefit while others are causing problems that can't be solved with another project of concrete and steel.

"If we didn't have water flowing down the Bear all year we wouldn't have all the increased recreation opportunities and potential in the area," he said. "We probably wouldn't be farming to the extent we are now and we wouldn't have the hydro power that's keeping energy costs down and lowering reliance on fossil fuels."

It's also likely, he said, that if the Bear was still a seasonal stream he wouldn't have seen the area's population triple over the last 30 years, covering more of the land with houses, asphalt, and concrete. "There's no argument that urban development is the largest cause of river and watershed degradation," he said.

"Poor land management has led to a general reduction in the absorptive capacity of the land, so that we are seeing increasing drainage and storm runoff into the river," he said. "It comes from clearing land for houses and neighborhoods without protecting disturbed soil because grading ordinances are being largely ignored. The color of the Bear during runoff this year was the brownest I've ever seen it."

He said that continued land management issues would eventually become water quality issues. As big a problem, he said, is that these are all political decisions and any problems arising out of them need political solutions.

"That can be easier said than done," he said. "But we have no choice. If we don't protect the watersheds it will definitely impact the quality of our water and our life. Everybody has to get involved. We can't ignore it any longer."