Days in the 60s and 70s, and nights in the 50s, all year long…
Rich, black, crumbly, well drained soil…
No winter freezes or brutal summer heat waves…
Plenty of fresh, clean water.
It’s the stuff of a gardener’s dream – the conditions that we clay-infested, erratic-weather-stressed central-Pennsylvania gardeners don’t have.
But there is a place where this plant nirvana exists.
It’s called Salinas Valley, Calif., and the people living there have had the good sense (so far) to exploit most of the acreage for astounding vegetable production.
This 90-mile stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline, about 2 hours south of San Francisco, produces a whopping 50 to 90 percent of many of America’s most-eaten vegetables.
Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located, churned out nearly 5 billion dollars worth of crops last year, making it the top-producing agriculture county anywhere in the world.
It’s where America gets the majority of its leaf and head lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, spinach, artichokes, cabbage, and peas.
In short, it’s America’s vegetable garden.
See video of workers harvesting broccoli in California’s Salinas Valley:
Without it, we’d be hurting at the produce section – especially from winter through mid-spring.
This part of the central California coast specializes in cool-season crops, ones we have to cram into that narrow window between winter-frozen soil and early-summer heat.
But in the land of eternal pleasantry, crops such as lettuce, broccoli, spinach and celery can be grown all year. One crop follows another.
Fields of veggies sprawl like oceans of green for mile after mile – a football field of cabbage, then lettuce, then spinach, then cauliflower, then more lettuce, and on and on and on.
The only brown you’ll see are blocks just harvested and getting ready to receive the next crop.
“The goal is three crops per field per year,” says Evan Oakes, a Monterey County Extension educator.
What makes that possible is the fortunate geography of the Salinas Valley. Mountains flank both sides of the valley, which opens up into the cool waters of the Pacific at its northern mouth.
The moist, moderating Pacific air funnels into the valley, which is essentially a nature-made walled garden.
“It never gets hot here,” says Oakes. “We can have days about 80 degrees and nights about 50 degrees for nine months of the year. Winter rarely drops below 40.”
The soil is also magnificent.
“There’s such amazing soil here that we don’t have to use much fertilizer,” Oakes says. “It’s so fertile. Topsoils are close to 100 feet deep in a river valley like this.”
The third key ingredient is water. That one is a little dicier since a single head of lettuce takes more than 3 gallons to grow and a crown of broccoli takes 51/2 gallons.
Monterey County gets only about 15 to 20 inches of rain per year, and most of that falls in the winter. Twelve inches of rain a year or less qualifies as a desert.
That forces Salinas growers to tap underground water and rely almost solely on irrigation to water the plants.
But the Salinas Valley is blessed again there with the Salinas River. Although 90 percent of it is underground, wells start hitting plentiful, clean supplies just 5 to 6 feet down.
The neighboring Carmel Valley with its Carmel River isn’t as fortunate. That source has been sucked down to the point where there’s now a moratorium on new wells.
Getting the crops from field to our tables is done with military-logistics efficiency.
Some crops, such as spinach, lettuce and broccoli, are harvested with a combination of machines and people. Others, such as strawberries, asparagus and artichokes, are harvested by knife-wielding workers who bend over for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.
It’s hard work, and few Americans are interested in doing it despite the pleasant weather and pay that can approach $20 an hour (plus full benefits).
Almost all of the labor is Mexican.
“This is the first time in our history where we’re having trouble getting enough labor,” says Oakes. “The Latino people are scared to death about coming over the border.”
He says companies typically find American workers do one day and decide that’s enough.
Assuming enough hands are on deck when a crop is ready, most veggies are picked and packed right in the field.
Those boxed strawberries you bought, for example, were touched only once before you opened them – by the picker/packer.
Lettuce and other small greens are the exception. They’re washed three times in chlorinated water before being packed.
“The goal is to pick the crop, pack it by hand in the field, get it to a cooler within an hour or two, and get it on the road,” says Oakes.
Cooling facilities throughout the valley are able to cool picked produce down to 33 degrees in as little as a half-hour. Refrigerated trucks line up outside these plants to haul it throughout the United States as fast as it can be boxed.
Besides cool-season veggies and strawberries, the Salinas Valley produces more than 44 million pounds of mushrooms a year, grows nearly 67,000 acres of assorted organic crops and 44,000 acres of wine grapes a year, and is California’s second-biggest producer of flowers, ornamental plants, and potted plants.
The variety is astounding, mainly because pretty much everything is happy growing in the Salinas Valley.
“When you have water, good soil and this climate, you can go crazy,” says Oakes.
On – 15 Jun, 2017 By George Weigel