John Bidwell was not only an American pioneer on the California Trail, he was California’s foremost pioneer in agriculture. Agriculture was Bidwell’s consuming passion and lifelong pursuit. After discovering gold at Bidwell Bar, he was able to purchase Rancho del Arroyo Chico, a 22,000-acre Mexican land grant. The development of his ranch as an agricultural showcase was his enduring mission.
In the early days he concentrated on raising and improving livestock, and on growing grain. He erected the first grist-mill in what is now Butte County. He was so successful in wheat production that in 1878 at the International Exposition in Paris, he was awarded a gold medal for the finest wheat in the world.
But Bidwell saw the Sacramento Valley’s potential for a much greater variety of crops. He planted the first peach trees, raised the first raisin grapes, and produced the first olive oil in Butte County.
He was a tireless promoter of California agriculture. He joined the California State Agricultural Society in 1858 and in 1867 was elected the first president of the Butte County Agricultural Association. In 1872 he was elected the president of the State Farmers’ Union, a precursor of the Grange.
In his annual addresses to the State Agricultural Society, he promoted diversity in California agriculture.
In a speech in 1860 he stated:
There is no reason why we cannot supply ourselves with the thousands of barrels, boxes, hogsheads, and casks, of dried apples, peaches, nuts, raisins, and other fruits which are constantly imported hither. It will not do to say that we cannot raise apples in California, for it is too well known that our mountains, the country along our extended sea coast, and numerous intermediate valleys, produce in abundance the finest apples in the world. Of peaches and pears it would be vain to attempt description that would be credited abroad—to be appreciated they must be seen. No country can equal much less surpass them. Almonds grow to perfection here, and can be raised almost as easily as peaches and in quantities to supply all the markets on the Pacific Ocean. We can also grow the Persian Walnut, and without doubt the Filbert also.
In 1891 he was still promoting fruit production in California:
I think this state is to be largely a fruit garden. I don’t think it is to be used continuously for the production of grain. Of course we will always produce cereals, but the capabilities of California are in the direction of fruit raising. It is capable of being made one grand fruit orchard. In order to do that, two things have to be done, some portions of the country must be drained and other portions irrigated, but this will have to be done systematically to be successful.
Bidwell’s vision for California was far-reaching.
- He promoted irrigation and envisioned a statewide network of canals, reservoirs, and dams to bring water to valley farms.
- He led the farmers’ fight against hydraulic mining, an industry that filled rivers and covered fields with mud, gravel, and debris.
- He tested new machinery and shared his findings.
- He imported specialty plants and experimented with new crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent seeds from all over the world to him, which he planted, keeping careful records of the results.
- He donated land for an experimental forestry station.
The list of his accomplishments in agriculture go on and on.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Rancho Chico was known as the finest and best-managed farm in California. In 1857, less than ten years after John Bidwell acquired Rancho Chico, a reporter from the California Farmer visited it and stated:
. . . this splendid Ranch, which embraces an area of five leagues of the best land in California; is . . . owned, cultivated and enjoyed by one of the best of men—a man who labors to encourage the working classes, and build up our glorious State.