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Published August 04, 2014, 09:42 AM

Lessons from California prove eye-opening

A few weeks ago, I used some time off from covering Upper Great Plains agriculture for Agweek to attend a two-day seminar focusing on the “Salad Bowl of the World” in Salinas, Calif.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

A few weeks ago, I used some time off from covering Upper Great Plains agriculture for Agweek to attend a two-day seminar focusing on the “Salad Bowl of the World” in Salinas, Calif.

Salinas offers opportunities to link its rich agricultural heritage resources to the intellectual and financial resources with high-tech Silicon Valley, next door to the north. The city itself has about 150,000 people. It’s at the mouth of the Salinas River, about eight miles from the Pacific Ocean — about a 20-mile drive from Monterey.

Author John Steinbeck captured the nation’s imagination about the area, writing novels often set in his home area (Of Mice and Men, 1937; The Grapes of Wrath, 1939; Cannery Row, 1945) famous for rich character development and often during the 1930s migration of Dust Bowl refugees. Among other things, Steinbeck wrote about the timeless truths about the relationship between labor and agriculture that are still relevant today, especially in the Upper Great Plains.

Things have changed

Today, Monterey peninsula is a tourist and hospitality mecca. The seacoast still provides its whale migrations, its lolling sea otters and maritime atmosphere. Street signs are all that’s left of the fish-canning industry that disappeared after World War II.

A few miles away, Salinas River Valley is bordered by hillsides covered in brown grazing land, pocked by natural trees. (To a South Dakota native, it is like the Black Hills in late August meets the Red River Valley of the North — but with irrigation.) The motorist is treated to a unique public art display that advertises the reason for the region’s prosperity — 20-foot-tall billboard-like cut-outs of individual workers in various poses, some with broad grins. There is an abundance of irrigated fields, watering the crops the valley is famous for. Wherever you look there are the squares with their stripes of various types — the heads of “iceberg” lettuce, the reds and greens of leaf lettuce, the strawberries, the romaine lettuce.

Of course, there are the workers working in organized troops around mechanized field equipment of various kinds. As a consumer and Midwesterner, I have always wanted to see this.

Norm Groot, executive director of the Farm Bureau of Monterey County, describes the county as “agriculturally intensive.” The University of California and Farm Bureau have been helping farmers with growing crops, disease control and finances. The day I was there, Groot reported the county had an astonishing $4.3 billion in ag production in 2013, up from $4.1 billion in 2012. (To compare, North Dakota, one of the most agriculture-dependent states in the country, has $4.1 billion in farm gate receipts on 22 million acres of cropland.)

Dollars and acres

While we’re known for our crop diversity, Salinas County farmers produce 50 to 60 crops a year on some 215,000 acres. About 26 of those crops each have a farm gate value of about $10 million. Biggies are leafy greens such as spinach and lettuce, and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. The county produces more than half of the strawberries grown in California.

The Salinas and Monterey area has an 80- to 90-mile long wine-tasting corridor, with 40,000 acres of grapes — just under Napa Valley in the number of acres grown. Salinas has some interesting challenges, but also some advantages involving water and innovation to reduce labor costs and understand the nation’s palate, which is leaning heavily toward eating fresh vegetables.

In addition to posting about Agweek country, I’ll be writing about their unique public-private partnerships in my blog in coming weeks. You can find it at