“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!”