I grew up overseas. It was a big deal to come back to the U.S. on vacation and land on American soil. Usually the first thing we'd do was head to McDonalds. But that was in the 70s when I was a child.
We always loved coming back through California. It usually meant we were going to Disneyland, etc. I remember Anaheim of the 70s - Disneyland and strawberry fields. My father and I loved strawberries and so we would get a flat and it would be gone in a day. Are there any fields even left in Anaheim now?
Those are my first memories of California strawberries. Even today you can still find so many fields throughout the state and pick up fresh berries. Nothing compares to picked-that-morning fresh berries and we are blessed to live amongst them.
Will it surprise you to hear that in as soon as 10-15 years the fields as we know them might all be gone?
I was on stop number two of our farm tour courtesy of KnowaCaliforniaFarmer.com. Our group had been so excited to be heading to a berry field in anticipation of fresh berry picking. We were at a strawberry field in the middle of a nature preserve talking with Tom Amrhein, a strawberry producer associated with Naturipe.
Naturipe is a collection of family owned berry farms throughout the country and foreign. They handle almost all kinds of berries from strawberries to raspberries and cranberries. The farms all work together under set protocols and standards and are also able to share resources such as equipment and shipping facilities.
Unfortunately our berry picking hopes were dashed when Tom told us that the workers had diligently worked their schedule and had just sprayed the field with pesticide. Here was the sign posting it. It is State law to post at sprayed fields so that people won't come and pick and eat. Not all crops require this, but strawberries do.
Berries are a recurring crop, delicate, and on a schedule. Each field gets picked twice a week and immediately after it's been picked it gets sprayed. That gives it the couple of days it needs for the pesticide to dissipate or break down in time for the next picking day.
Tom said that he had both conventional and organic berry fields. He explained that in reality, though, they use the same pesticides on both crops. Organic does not mean pesticide free, it means that the pesticides are organically based versus synthetically manufactured. Many farming operations use the same pesticides and fertilizers in both conventional and organic farming. He explained that for the fertilizers they often use fish or animal meal. (Are vegans/vegetarians aware of this?)
Berries, like the lettuces at Tanimura & Antle, are picked and packaged right in the field. In under two hours they have been transported from the field to the cooling centers. It's important to get them down to 34 degrees to keep in the flavor and help them to last through transport time across the country.
When the trucks arrive some berries from each field are checked for quality and conforming to Naturipe standards. The packages are weighed and the berries are counted. They are also checked for blemishes and how ripe they are. Since the berries are coming from different owners' farms, they need to ensure that there is consistency across all of them.
The berries are then palletted together and sort of shrinkwrapped in plastic. Before it is sealed they modify the atmosphere within with more CO2 to help keep them from spoiling. This is not done for all berry transport, but based on the retailer's request or due to the length of transport.
Back to that question up front regarding strawberry fields in 10-15 years.
For decades the number one fumigant used by strawberry and other farmers was methyl bromide. Then an international agreement passed to phase it and other fumigants out and ban their use in farming, not for a food safety reason, but due to saving the ozone layer. The law stated that its use was to be phased out from each crop - the last being strawberries. This is the last year that it can be used.
The problem is that there has been no discovery of another effective yet safe fumigant, at least for strawberries. You see the strawberry mounds above. They are covered in plastic and within the mound are drip feeders. Before they plant the seedlings they pump the fumigant through the drip system to prepare the soil. After the soil is prepped, the seedlings are planted inside punch holes in the plastic.
Tom explained that the fumigant helps to eradicate some soil born diseases that destroy the strawberries. These diseases can be found on other plants, but strawberries are particularly susceptible to them. So far there have been no other fumigants that are as successful for dealing with it as the ones that are now banned.
After this last year of the methyl bromide, it will be about 4-5 years before the pathogens build up again to a level that will destroy crops. It's a short window to find a solution. Even if you had a clean field and planted clean plants, the disease can still be brought in via animals, wind, on shoes.
Other farming issues
We had a few more topical discussions during the day that I wanted to pass on.
First was the import of fruits from foreign countries. Both Naturipe and Tanimura & Antle have growers in Mexico (and berries also from Chile, etc.). They wanted people to understand that the produce grown in these countries and brought in are held to the same standard as the crops they raise at home. You shouldn't be afraid to buy onions from Mexico or berries from Chile.
Another was the lack of young farmers to carry family farming on into the future. The median age of U.S. farmers is 57. In Chile and Mexico, it's in the low 30s. UC Davis has lower and lower class sizes and graduates in its agricultural program whereas in Mexico and South America it's growing.
Brian Antle had said to us earlier, "There is no way a young man could suddenly decide he wants to be a farmer and go and buy a farm and start today." The land is too expensive/valuable now. Farms need to be passed down, but often there are no heirs to leave them to or they have no interest in farming them.
Meanwhile not only our population grows, but the world's. California is the one of the principal suppliers of food to the United States but also the world. It's important to realize the struggles and successes of our farms and agricultural community.
For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork