Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Strawberry Fields, Forever? Chemistry and Agriculture in California

Giant thistles and tiny cabbages take over once you reach the central California coast. In the cool, humid marine zone south of San Francisco and north of Santa Barbara, fields of artichoke and Brussels sprouts stretch from the highway to the ocean. This area produces over 90% of the US crop of 'chokes and sprouts.
Artichokes are a member of the thistle family. Some people cut the ends off the leaves before steaming them, but it's not required.
Early in the morning, we watch a farm worker walk among the rows of tall, spike-leafed artichoke plants, cutting the largest 'chokes and throwing them in the giant basket strapped to his back. Farther down, we find a field with no one working and snatch a couple for ourselves.
In the Brussels sprout fields, harvesting is faster and easier thanks to mechanized harvesters. Unlike artichokes, which are perennial, Brussels sprouts are an annual crop. They're actually in the same family as broccoli and cabbages, only instead of producing one large flower like a cabbage, the Brussels sprout produces a long stalk with dozens of small flowers, which are the "sprouts".
When we first rode by a field of these, I had to put Cynthia down and hop through the mud to get close enough to figure out what the darn things were. To make mechanical harvest possible, the farmers chop all the leaves off the plants, just leaving the foot-high tower of sprouts. The harvesting machine then drives along and shaves the sprouts off the stem. The sprouts are swept to the end of the rows into giant furrows. We rode by some of these mounds, as well, and were unable to resist the invitingly broken fence next to the bike path. We scurried away when we saw an approaching tractor, the trailer hitched to the back mounded with Brussels sprouts like something out of a kid's dinnertime nightmare.
That night, arrived at Bart's house near Santa Cruz, our warm shower for the evening. We steamed the artichokes and dipped their meaty leaves in mayonnaise mixed with curry powder, Bart's recipe. The Brussels sprouts were splashed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and orange juice, with some garlic powder and sea salt thrown on, then roasted until tender. (The next day, we visited a farmers' market, and I realized this recipe would have been a hundred times better with some local walnuts thrown in. Still, they were pretty darn good.)

Workers transplanting strawberry plants.
The next leg of our food-cycle journey took us from Santa Cruz around Monterey Bay to the little fork of land that holds such wonders as Carmel, Pebble Beach and the Monterey Bay aquarium (basically all converging into a tourist trap out of a cyclists' nightmare). Before we got there, we traveled through a small portion of California's 26,000 acres of strawberry fields.
Imagine the ocean, rolling out toward the horizon with the sun reflecting off the endless waves. Now imagine it covered in a thick sheet of plastic. This is what you see when you see a strawberry farm, only there are tiny breaks in the plastic for the plants to peek through. The plastic serves its purpose of keeping the berries off of the dirt and deterring weeds, but when the plants are pulled up after one or two seasons, the plastic gets landfilled.
Riding past miles and miles of this stuff was depressing, to say the least. We grow strawberries in Oregon, of course, and many farms use plastic. But California is growing strawberries to be shipped everywhere from Alaska to New York. Twenty-six thousand acres worth.
It might all be changing soon. Several chemicals make all of this strawberry production possible in California. They are fungicides (mainly a delicious cocktail of methyl bromide and chloropicrin, also known as tear gas) that farmers use to prevent root rot in the strawberry plants. Every year, they gas the soil with this stuff, and keep it covered for a month so as to kill any strawberry-root-loving fungus. About half of it escapes into the atmosphere, harming farmworkers and other people who breathe, before making its way up to knock holes in the ozone layer. But without the fungicide, growing strawberries at this volume isn't really feasible.
Methyl bromide cocktails are banned in all developed countries, including the US, but the California strawberry industry has a special exemption that has allowed it to "phase out" the chemicals over time. Only in this case, "phase out" apparently means "continue use as normal".
If it ever really kicks in, the ban won't be an end to strawberries (after all, organic farmers have been growing them for years without fungicides) but it does mean that yields will be down enough that the prices will have to go up, and there's only so much people are willing to pay for a tasteless California strawberry in February in Alaska. Whether those berries will disappear from the grocery store shelves depends on whether an acceptable alternative to the fungicides comes on the market, or if consumers actually make the choice to just stop buying them.

Hannah and Bart at the Aptos Farmers' Market
Witnessing the soil-poisoning, machinery-heavy roots of America's produce isle was sobering, but we found reason for hope at the farmers' market that Bart took us to the next morning.
We went early, because Bart warned us that all the good stuff would be gone before noon. The market is held at Cabrillo College, where the horticulture program is training the next generation of farmers, who sell hydroponic lettuce and greenhouse mushrooms next to the older generation of fruit and vegetable growers. Between the two groups, there must be a hundred ways to produce this food without spraying, plasticing, fumigating and trampling the land. It takes care, it takes effort, and it results in a higher-priced product.
As long as money is the only thing we look at when we shop for groceries, methyl bromide, plastic, and fossil-fuel-guzzling machinery will be on the farm scene in California and everywhere crops are grown on the large scale. It's up to us to make the choice.


  1. i intend to read this post...but it's very long. and doesn't have enough pictures :(

  2. Sorry, Blogspot and the iPad don't get along very well. One picture at the end is about all I can do! Roughin it! Now stop being lazy and read! :)