Early this month, my dad and I took a field trip to the Pajaro Valley during a trip to California. The area is very rich, agriculturally, with some of the finest, most productive soils in the world. This region is right on the Monterey Bay on the Central California Coast; it has regular fog, no frost and high precipitation.
The Pajaro Valley in Watsonville, California is a small area; it’s rich river-bottom soils and mild, sunny climate make it an agricultural powerhouse, especially for strawberries. The earliest commercial cultivation of strawberries in the Pajaro Valley began in the late 1860s. After the coming of the railroad in the 1870s and the development of extensive irrigation systems for strawberries in the 1890s, Pajaro Valley strawberry production increased dramatically.
Strawberry farming is unlike any other; we saw fields of berries being harvested on the same road as fields being prepared for planting. While strawberries are a perennial crop, they are usually planted annually when grown commercially. They are grown on wide, raised beds, so that the berries hang down the edges. This allows the growing strawberries to have better sunlight, and makes them easier to pick.
Baby strawberry plants are started under black plastic covers, which keeps the soil warm, holds in moisture, and also helps protect the baby plants from insects, and keep weeds to a minimum. Dripline irrigation is used, which places water right on the plant, saves water, and keeps the berries drier, helping to decrease fungus growth.
The fields in these pictures are owned by Dole Corporation. While “corporate farms” get a negative media spin, you can see from these photos that their fields are beautifully managed. Because the farmland in this region is so valuable, the cost per acre to grow each crop is much higher than with other crops in other regions. Without strong management systems in place, these fields would quickly be degraded. The land is very carefully and intensively farmed; it is managed with a very high level of care and consideration for sustaining the natural resources such as water and soil quality.
This type of “vertical farming” is very unique. It is sophisticated and intensive. Dole, and other Pajaro Valley strawberry producers, are very efficient not only in their growing of strawberries, but in their harvesting and distributing of them as well.
The workers you see above are highly skilled; their jobs are sought after, they are unionized, and well paid. At the edge of one field being harvested, we saw all the pickers’ cars lined up. There were no junkers at all; they were nice, American made, late model family cars, in good shape.
Large crews of pickers sweep the fields, plucking the juicy red berries and plopping them directly in the plastic tubs you see in the stores. Machines which handle the packaging runs right ahead of the pickers. No secondary handling is done, and the berries make it to stores across the nation within a few days of being picked. (Which in itself makes a good argument for washing your produce!)
The Pajaro Valley and surrounding areas produce almost 50% of the nation’s strawberries, which is about 1.8 billion pounds of the delicious red berries! Strawberry harvests across the state employ about 70,000 people, and contribute around $3.4 billion to the California economy.
The next time you buy strawberries in your market, check to see where they were grown. There’s a very good chance that they come from the Pajaro Valley of Santa Cruz County, California. Thank you Dole, and other companies, for growing our delicious strawberries for us!