A vintage photo of orchards in the Santa Clara Valley
A vintage photo of Santa Clara Valley, where orchards once covered the region. Photo courtesy of History San Jose.

I got a very cordial outreach from my friends at the San Jose Office of Economic Development recently to take a look at some marketing materials they send out to the world promoting San Jose as a location for starting and expanding a business.

That office is helpful to us in the commercial real estate universe for a myriad of needs, and workers keep their fingers on the pulse of business trends and also help with vexing questions about city processes relating to permits, planning and so on. As usual I have to lament the good old days when they were closely allied with our now defunct Redevelopment Agency and had access to enormous sums of money to really fix problems and promote business. Alas, today they are really way overqualified marketeers and great problem solvers with relatively small sums of money only occasionally available.

The flyer the office drafted is filled with impressive statistics about San Jose. A few highlights:

  • San Jose ranks second in The Americas Global 500 Companies accounting for $19 trillion in revenue
  • San Jose State is the No.1 university for graduates hired by Silicon Valley companies
  • Rated No. 2 as Best Places to Live for Families in the U.S.
  • 25,000 high-tech companies in city borders
  • 54% year over year GDP growth
  • 225,000 employees in tech
  • 39% foreign-born population
  • Commercial real estate one-third less expensive per square foot compared to other South Bay Area cities (ouch)

I quipped to the office of economic development that the flyer looked a bit like a ransom note with so much information and type fonts scattered across two pages.

In my constant quest for figuring out what makes San Jose — and Santa Clara County — so uniquely productive I tried to come up with a one phrase tagline that refers to its agrarian past combined with the tech behemoth it is today: “Orchards of the mind.”

By this I mean to find that elusive social and business connection from the early days when Santa Clara Valley was known throughout the world as the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its high concentration of orchards, flowering trees and plants. Santa Clara Valley was one of the most fertile and perfect places on earth for growing fruit orchards. The business of fruit became incredibly lucrative. The Donner Party was not on their way to San Francisco in 1846, that great migration of the previous decades was all about farmers getting seeds planted on the floor of Santa Clara Valley. The gold came three years later and eventually drew half of the eccentrics on the planet to SF proper.

The roots of technology here are deeply connected to the mass production, canning and distribution of those fruits. There is a reason why one of the largest defense contractors — think Bradley fighting machines — was named Food Machinery Corporation. The technology for the complex business of mechanizing the fruit harvesting, canning, packing and global shipping was a trade principally learned at San Jose State, then called California State Normal School — isn’t that a good one.

That is a big reason why SJSU still graduates the mass of engineers that fill the tech campuses across Silicon Valley. And related to early land ownership stemming from those same massive orchards, if you scratch a longtime commercial real estate developer here in the valley, you get a farmer.

The combination of such a high percentage of foreign-born citizens all seeking — and finding — the American dream with the remnant “early to bed early to rise” agrarian ethos is the other part of why it is so productive. If you want nightclubs and fashion San Jose is not your town. Clear-headed hardworking engineers abound.

And they are ready for the next tsunami of artificial intelligence-based job growth that will blossom from the most valuable tree ever planted.

San José Spotlight columnist Mark Ritchie is the owner of commercial real estate brokerage firm Ritchie Commercial, and has spent his entire career in commercial real estate. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Mark at [email protected].

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