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California’s great agricultural tradition began with the missions.

Most of the Indian groups that lived in California before 1769 were hunters and gatherers. Only those in the southeast, along the Colorado River, planted any crops. The Indians who came to the Spanish missions were not familiar with growing crops.

The plan for each of the 21 California missions was that it would become a self-sufficient community, producing whatever was needed for the people who lived there. To that end, one of the first things the padres did at a mission was to clear land and plant crops. The Spanish king granted a large number of acres of land to each mission for crops and livestock. This land was not owned by the padres, but kept in trust for the Indians.

The padres brought seed with them when they came from Mexico. When a new mission was started, the other missions were expected to send seeds and livestock to help it get started.

Though the Indians had no previous experience at farming, they soon learned to do all of the work on the mission farms. The Indians were good farmers. They also learned to ride horses and herd cattle.

The Indian farmers used wooden plows to till the land. The first plows were tree branches with metal points attached to the end to break up the hard ground. Oxen were used to pull these plows over the ground as the Indian workers guided the plows. The workers tossed seeds of grain into the furrows made by the plow. They then dragged a small bush or tree limb across the furrow, to push the soil over the seeds.

The major field crops at the missions were wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas. These crops had to be watered, so irrigation systems were devised by the padres. They brought water to the fields through stone troughs or adobe clay pipes.

During planting and harvesting seasons, the workers would stay in the fields longer hours. In the afternoon, a young boy would bring jars of sweetened water to the field for the thirsty farm workers.

When the grain was ripe, it was harvested by hand using a sickle (a curved knife with a short handle). The stalks of grain were loaded onto a carreta (wooden cart) pulled by oxen and taken to the threshing area.

After the grain was harvested, it was placed on a stone threshing floor where the horses stamped on it with their hooves to break the grain away from the husks. Workers loosened the grain from the straw and lifted the straw out with large wooden forks. The grain was then winnowed by being tossed up and down in large, flat baskets. This allowed the chaff (or husks) to be blown away by the air and the heavier grains of wheat to fall back into the basket.

In addition to the field crops, each mission planted orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens. Orange, lemon, apricot, peach, pear, plum, pomegranate, apple and fig trees yielded fruit. Walnut and almond trees were planted. Most of these trees had not grown in California before. The oldest pear tree in California is said to be at Mission San Antonio de Padua.

The first pepper tree was reportedly brought to California from Peru in 1830. Many missions soon had pepper trees. One of the original trees is still growing at Mission San Luis Rey.

The first olive trees in California were planted from seeds brought by the padres. By 1803 Father Lasuén, the president of the missions, reported that several missions were harvesting olives. The oil was used in cooking, in lamps, and as an item for trade. To make the oil, the olives were washed and placed inside woolen bags. The bags were put into an olive press, which squeezed out the oil. The oil was strained through the woolen cloth, which kept the pulp and skin from mixing with the oil.

In the mission vegetable gardens, the Indians grew tomatoes, onions, garlic, melons, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and peppers. Some padres encouraged the Indians to plant family gardens as well.

The gardens were surrounded by fences to keep out wandering cattle and wild animals. The fence at Mission San Gabriel was twelve feet high, a living fence formed from fruit-bearing prickly pear cactus. The sharp spines of the cactus kept animals out of the garden. While cactus was used for fencing in the south, the northern missions used rock walls to protect their gardens.

At first, the field crops and gardens were close to the mission buildings. As the missions grew, they used ranch land further away for farming and livestock. Some missions had several ranches, each specializing in one crop such as wheat or grapes.

The first cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and oxen were brought to California from Mexico by the padres. Corrals made with low adobe brick walls housed the animals near the mission compound. The herders took the animals to good grazing places. As the herds increased in size, ranch land was used for livestock. Each mission had its own cattle brand. The ranch land was not fenced and animals often got mixed up on the open range.

Even with the effort given to planting gardens, the first few years were difficult ones for the mission farms. Crops failed due to floods in some places and drought in others. During the winter of 1773-74, the padres at Mission San Carlos Borromeo lived on gruel and peas. They sent the Indians out to hunt and fish. There were many years of poor crops at Mission Soledad. Padre Vicente Francisco Sarría died there of starvation.

The later success of the crops and gardens did enable the missions to become almost self-sufficient for some years. Many raised more food than they needed. They were expected to supply the presidios with food, and still had enough to use for trade. It may have been the success of the farms that led to the Mexican government’s decision to take the rich land away from the missions.

The English sea captain George Vancouver visited Mission San Buenaventura in 1793. He reported on the excellent quality of the vegetables and fruits that he purchased there. It took 20 pack mules to carry the food back to his ship.

Other ships also stopped at San Buenaventura for supplies. At this mission the climate and soil were right for growing more tropical plants such as sugar cane, bananas, and coconuts.

Mission San Gabriel was credited with having the most productive farms of the 21 missions. Mission San Luis Rey was second in amount of crops, but first in livestock with 27,000 head of cattle, 26,000 sheep, and several thousand horses.

In 1834, as the mission period ended, records show that the missions owned 296,000 head of cattle, 321,000 hogs, sheep and goats, and 62,000 horses. They had been harvesting 123,000 bushels of grain a year. Just 65 years earlier, there had been no cows, horses, hogs, sheep, goats or wheat in all of California.

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