Sunday, December 08, 2013

Strawberries in Orange County

Famed berry grower Walter Knott inspects strawberries with one of his employees.
Strawberries have been grown in Orange County since at least 1880, but for many decades they were grown by few farmers and usually in small quantities. Not that our soil and climate weren’t perfect for strawberries. Those that did grow here thrived. In 1882, George R. Hinde, founder of the Placentia's vegetarian cult, Societas Fraterna, (nicknamed "the grass eaters") exhibited a strawberry that measured 11 ¾ inches in circumference! But commercial production of berries of any kind was negligible in Orange County until the 1910s and 1920s. Land that wasn’t planted in citrus generally went to popular crops like beans, alfalfa, celery, and sugar beets.

Although strawberries were a fairly profitable crop when weather and disease cooperated, they were also very labor-intensive. This is part of why it took a while for them to catch on. They remained a small crop here in 1910s to 1930s – with 200 to 500 acres at most. They grew particularly well in the sandier soils of the western part of the county.
A plastic owl guards a local strawberry field in the 1950s.
Starting in the late teens or twenties, Japanese-American farmers in our area found they could grow small patches of strawberries in unused parcels and turn a significant profit. In some cases, it proved to be a good crop to rotate with some other primary crop: One year tomatoes, one year strawberries.

But it wasn’t until after WWII that strawberries really took off in a big way in O.C. Beginning around 1968, they were clearly our most profitable crop. That year, we had 1,775 acres, which was probably our biggest year for strawberries.
Anglos, Japanese and Latinos work together in an O.C. strawberry field during the Great Depression.
As more and more of Orange County has been paved, strawberries have continued to be a crop that survived in the margins. It was common to find a small field tucked in between housing tracts or shopping centers. Even a small field could be profitable, and growers often had success selling the berries to local residents from roadside stands. But now even these last small pockets of strawberries are dwindling. In 2012, for instance, we lost the last strawberry field in Garden Grove: The home of the Strawberry Festival.

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