Land of Plenty?

California’s Perilous Acres: Food, Hunger, Business, Migrants (Photos)

Inside the ‘Food Basket.’ A look at photos from Melanie and Ken Light’s ‘Valley of Shadows and Dreams.’

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

The Central Valley stretches for 450 miles through California and is home to so many of the problems America faces today. Nearly half of the country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown there—largely picked by undocumented workers—and more than half of the residents make less than $16,746 a year. As lines of laborers pick asparagus, other lines form at community food giveaways. Pesticides are sprayed, water wars are fought, and the housing bubble has forever changed the landscape.

Ken and Melanie Light spent five years documenting in words and images the many complexities of the Central Valley. As Melanie Light writes, "I saw the same thing happening all over the valley. The fruit bowl of America was being planted with its final crop: ticky-tacky cookie-cutter houses and gated communities with waterfront homes on man-made lakes.”

And you can see it all in Ken Light’s photographs. You see farmland and new housing developments battle it out—and abandoned homes show that no one is winning. But it is not all grim. Farm workers dance the night away, and a girl celebrates her Quinceañera. As the California Aqueduct surges through the landscape in one photo, a boy flies over the San Joaquin River on a rope swing in another.

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Guadalupe, 26-year-old mother of five
San Joaquin, CA
2009

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Carmen, 18 years old, seven months pregnant
Tulare County, CA
2007

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

California Aqueduct
Tulare County, CA
2008

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

New homes and agricultural land
Tulare County, CA
2008

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Deserted subdivision
Atwater, CA
2009

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Rope swing, 6 PM, 100 °F
San Joaquin River, CA
2010

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Drying alfalfa, Highway 180
Central Valley, CA
2006

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

50 Cent
Asparagus picker
Madera, CA
2007

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Walnut gleaners, 30¢ a pound
El Rio Estates
Visalia, CA
2008

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Food Line
Westside Community Center
Mendota, CA
2009

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Quinceañera
Tranquility, CA
2006

© Ken Light / Courtesy of Contact Press Images

Immigration Demonstration
May Day
Fresno County, CA
2006

Valley of Shadows and Dreams
By Ken Light and Melanie Light

Heyday Books, $40

For more, visit the website and view the original Newsweek multimedia special report on the San Joaquin Valley.