Strawberry Fields Forever: Our Tour to the Salinas Valley

By Rebecca Eiseman, CFJC intern

When I was asked which of the field trips I would like to attend during the 15th annual Food Justice Conference, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to attend “Empowering Young and Immigrant Farmers in the Salinas Valley.” I feel so fortunate to CFJC and Food First to have had this opportunity. It’s already been a month since our busload of 40+ conference attendees went down (about two hours south of the Bay Area), but the inspiration still lingers on for many of us!

The Salinas Valley is the true fruit basket of the nation—or perhaps salad bowl is more appropriate—with strawberries and leaf lettuces being their top two crops by far. Monterey County on the whole produces 59% of the nation’s lettuce, and approximately 50% of the nation’s strawberries. (See the Agricultural Commissioner for more info.)

So when we received a farm tour from Maria Elena Padilla, a farmer, entrepreneur, and a third-year student at Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a little giggle broke the ice when we realized there were “strawberry fields forever!” The prominence of strawberries has partly to do with the valley’s amicable climate, and partly with the relative profitability of this specialty crop.

ALBA, a non-profit farmer incubator organization, was our main destination on the tour. Their mission is to “advance economic viability, social equity and ecological land management among limited-resource and aspiring farmers,” and to “create opportunities for family farms while providing education and demonstration on conservation, habitat restoration, marketing and whole farm planning.”

The Executive Director Alfred Navarro gave us a warm welcome to the farm, and in their main classroom told us their whole story—from the circa 1972 beginning, through today’s innovative social entrepreneurial business model, in which profits go directly back to the farmers and to fund the non-profit. Our gracious hosts for the day were Gary Peterson and Nancy Porto, who eventually guided us to the National Steinbeck Museum in downtown Salinas. (Just half a mile away from where the classic American author grew up; these rolling hills and foggy coast offered quite the inspiration!)

But before that we were given one last presentation that sparked a great discussion: Daniel Madrigal, an Outreach Coordinator for a UC Berkeley study shared some preliminary findings with our group. The Center for Environmental Research on Children’s Health is conducting an in-depth, 15-year-long birth cohort study examining chemicals and other environmental factors and their effect on children’s health. It has already been proven that there is a corresponding relationship between Organophosphates (a pesticide) and low IQ in children. There was a prevailing desire among our group to learn more about this study, which is still only in its early phases. Hopefully we will be able to help take action before too long. See their website for more information.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget to tell you about lunch! If you’re ever at the Santa Cruz or Monterey Farmer’s Market, keep an eye out for the Babaloo Food Truck. These delicious Cuban-style sandwiches sure hit the spot (as did the virgin mojito!) Thanks Gladys!

Again, thank you to Tanya, Erin, Gary, Nancy, Maria, Daniel, and Alfred for making our conference weekend spectacular! We hope to see you soon.

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CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

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