“It’s the state vegetable of California,” Evan Oakes says proudly as he hands me a flowery green stem. “In fact, 90 percent of all artichokes in North America come from Monterey County.”

I’m standing at the edge of an artichoke field at Pezzini Farms, the first stop on Evan’s Ag Ventures tour of the Salinas Valley. The farmlands in this 90-mile-long coastal valley south of Monterey are some of the most bountiful in California, earning the nickname “salad bowl of the world.” Evan is an agricultural scientist who conducts research in vegetable and wine grape production here, and his tours cover a broad spectrum from wine tasting to sightseeing to agriculture. Herb and I have signed on for a peek inside the world of farming.

Salinas Valley map. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, taken by Shannon1, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Before we head out to explore the area, Evan offers a bit of insight into all things artichoke. Artichoke plants were first brought to the United States by Italian immigrants, he explains. They need coastal fog to thrive, and parts of Turkey, Spain, Italy and Egypt also produce successful crops. The artichokes grown here are perennials – better than annuals, Evan says – and can be identified by their thorns when you see them at the market. They are picked by hand one week before their flower opens, and what we are eating is actually the artichoke’s immature flower. If allowed to bloom, a pinkish-purple flower breaks through, lasting almost a month. And most fascinating to me, Evan told us that dried artichokes have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

Ready for our tour!
A field of young artichoke plants at Pezzini Farms, one of the earliest artichoke growers in California.

How to Prepare and Eat an Artichoke

Next, Evan takes us inside Pezzini’s market for a demonstration on how to properly prepare an artichoke. Other than having artichoke hearts in salads, Herb and I know very little about artichokes and are curious to learn Evan’s tips. He first cuts the stems and removes the bottoms and recommends placing four or five upside-down in a pot with about an inch of boiling water. Do not use a steamer. Cover the pot and lower the heat to simmer for about half an hour. If a knife goes in easily, the artichoke is ready. Peel each leaf off toward the heart and eat only the bottom by dipping in a sauce and scooping it with your teeth. When you reach the heart, remove the hairy “choke” before cutting the heart in pieces to dip or use in a salad.

Pezzini Farms’ colorful market.
Evan cuts the stem and removes the bottom of the artichoke.
A properly cut artichoke, ready for cooking.
The artichoke heart.

Scenes from the Fields

We leave Pezzini’s and begin our drive – which happily for us turns out to be a private tour – through the farmlands. Shades of green stretch out like a Pantone color chart on both sides of paved two-lane roads. Spray from crop irrigators creates a haze against an azure sky and the distant Gabilan Mountains. We pass fields of celery, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and lettuce. As he drives, Evan talks with great enthusiasm about the farming process, often pulling his van to the side of the road for detailed views or to kindly accommodate my photo requests.

Fields of cabbage…
…and a closer look.
Celery is a one-time harvest that involves strategic cutting to avoid damaging the roots and to keep each plant from falling apart.
The Salinas Valley produces hearts of romaine as well as iceberg, leaf and romaine lettuce.
Evan stops to talk about leaf lettuce.
Brussels sprouts are named after the Belgian capital city. 
Irrigation workers are “the heart and soul of the farm,” Evan says. 

Salinas Valley Harvesters

Harvesting is a labor-intensive process, Evan explains, with every plant picked by hand. Workers specialize in one crop and form tight-knit teams. Men typically do the cutting, and women handle packing duties. Workdays begin at 6 a.m. and run about eight hours. Evan says that most of the Salinas Valley farm workers are employed full-time by the growers and receive medical and other benefits.

We stop alongside a field where workers are harvesting cauliflower. Music is playing as they move at a brisk speed, cutting and packing the crops. The harvesting equipment moves with the workers, looking like an assembly line in the field. We see a man walking past the field who Evan tells us is the supervisor for the area. After a field has passed a food safety test, the supervisor determines when the crops should be harvested.

The cauliflower crew. Workers on the top “stack” make boxes for packing; the men wearing vests are the crew’s foremen.
A lettuce crew…
…and a broccoli crew.

Strawberry Fields Forever

Our last stop is an organic strawberry field, where plants are grown without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. To keep pesky lygus bugs from damaging the strawberries, farmers use a vacuum that pulls the bugs off the plants. The vacuum has been so effective that it is gaining use in non-organic farming. Evan explains that harvesting strawberries is one of the most physically difficult and least desired field jobs. Workers must hand-pick strawberries every three to four days to ensure that they are not overripe. In the berry world, Evan says that strawberries are the hardiest and have the longest farm-to-market shelf life, followed by blackberries and the more delicate raspberries.

Splashes of red among the green.
The “bug vacuum” helps organic farmers keep harmful pests away from their plants.
Strawberry field workers.

A Field of Giants

The Salinas Valley fields are also home to some rather tall residents. From a distance, they appear to be ordinary field workers, but the closer you get, the larger they become, and you quickly realize they are far from human. Local artist John Cerney created these 18 feet tall “giant people” figures for a commissioned project that pays tribute to the agricultural labor force. Constructed from plywood, the figures depict local people who have worked on the farms.

I am eager to get an up-close look at these artistic creations that had caught my eye many months ago on our way to Monterey. Evan drops us off at The Farm, an organic farm and agricultural education center just off Highway 68 where the giant people make their home. Herb and I walk along a dirt road at the edge of the field. As the figures come into view, I am struck by their whimsical charm as well as their size. It’s as if Norman Rockwell traveled here to paint his version of John Steinbeck country.

The first of John Cerney’s “giant people” led to a series of ten.
From the highway, you almost do a double-take to see if these lettuce workers are actual people.
Herb offers a bit of perspective!
Lettuce anyone?

The Company Town

On the way back to Pezzini Farms, Evan takes us down a road lined with beautiful black walnut trees leading to the town of Spreckels. Considered one of the best-preserved company towns in the United States, Spreckels was built to house workers for the Spreckels sugar beet factory which operated here from 1899 until 1982. At one time, it was the largest sugar beet plant in the world. We pass a post office, a volunteer fire department and rows of houses that were once home to company workers. A sign at the edge of town lists the population at 485.

Further down the road is the headquarters for produce company Tanimura & Antle, founded in 1982. Surrounded by lush fields and a ring of palm trees, the building is a sharp contrast to the storefronts along Spreckels’ main street, as if we’ve driven from the past to the future in a few short moments.

Black walnut trees were planted in the 1890s to serve as a grand entrance to the Spreckels sugar beet factory.
Tanimura & Antle headquarters.

One Last Look

Evan is running late as he drives us back to Pezzini Farms. He has an afternoon tour in Big Sur and needs to run a few errands along the way. I’m certain that my never-ending requests for photos and Herb’s never-ending questions have slowed down our tour, but he assures us that our three-hour route is too short to fit in everything he wants us to know.

We turn off the highway onto a road near Pezzini’s. “This is the best spot for a photo overlooking the valley,” Evan tells us. “We don’t have time to stop, but roll down your window and give it a try.” A blur of trees speeds by, blocking the valley views. Evan, however, knows just when the breaks in the trees will appear, and with the precision of someone who has been down this road many times before, he calls out, “Now!”

14 Comments

  • Love this piece. I first visited California’s farm belt 30 years ago and remain awed at the vastness of the state’s vegetable production. It’s a very big garden.

    • Steve, I’m so glad you enjoyed this! We were in awe as well, and at times it felt as if we were riding down country roads that were part of a “rural city” all its own. A very big garden indeed 🙂

  • Wonderful! “The long valley,” as John Steinbeck called it in one of his lesser-known but more descriptive books with that same title, is home to one of our favorite vegetables: the artichoke. Steamed and served with drawn butter, it is a longtime favorite. A perfect accompaniment is pan-seared Petrale Sole caught in Monterey Bay. This is the heartland of California, an agricultural center that is far from the “maddening crowds” of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. It exemplifies what makes California such a special place.

    • Jeff, your food description is making me hungry! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. It was a real treat to get a behind-the-scenes look at this extraordinary area we’ve driven past many times on our way to other places. California’s “heartland” is a perfect description!

  • Mary,
    Herb said you’d be having something interesting this week…and he was right! We’ve driven through the Salinas area on a number of occasions, not really stopping. However, I learned a lot from from your post, and I’ll never look at an artichoke the same. I’d like to do that tour sometime. Thanks for sharing.

    • Your comment about never looking at an artichoke in the same way really made me smile. Thanks Jason! Herb and I both came away from the tour with a renewed appreciation for the produce that we so often take for granted at the grocery store as well as the people who make it all possible. It’s a fascinating tour that I highly recommend if you’re in the area.

  • What a privilege to get an inside view of such a marvellous operation! I love visiting places like this, which make me look differently at those things I might otherwise take for granted. The details are fascinating, especially the artichokes, which are a rarity on this side of the Atlantic. I would definitely need Evan at my side in the kitchen. Thank you Mary, for another entry on my “to visit” list!

    • I completely agree with you, Gill, about the chance to explore places which make us look at things a little differently. Many thanks for sharing your perspective from across the pond 🙂 I’m happy to have added to your “to visit” list!

  • Loved this, Mary! Beautiful photos as well and the 18 foot workers!! amazing. Having just recently read East of Eden, this really hit home.

    • Julie, so great to hear from you here! Thank you for the kind words…and what perfect timing after reading East of Eden 🙂

    • Todd, thank you so much for sharing your family’s story and the Sunset link. Those walnut trees are spectacular and a beautiful legacy your grandfather left to the Salinas Valley.

  • Please enjoy the Salinas Valley’s lush acreage now because the way the State of California is cutting back on the water the farmers can pump, it will get to the point most of this, if not all, will be gone. Then all the vegetables will come from companies without the high standards of the United States.

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