Strawberry fields forever


November 30, 2008|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The giant strawberry fields outside the towns of Salinas and Watsonville, Calif., south of San Jose, seem to stretch on forever.

In Merced County, east of Santa Cruz, the tomato fields roll on and on for miles.

For some old-timers in our area, these West Coast farm scenes are like a flashback to their youth when Maryland's Eastern Shore was considered the strawberry capital of the country and the state ranked No. 1 in tomato canning prior to World War II.

While Maryland presents a composite of farming across the country, it perhaps most closely resembles California, says Kenny Bounds, a vice president of Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit, Maryland's largest agricultural lender. Farmers in both states offer a wide variety of agricultural commodities.

"We are like California in miniature," Bounds said. "We are very similar to what you see in California, but on a much smaller scale."

And that is a good thing, according to the banker. "Diversification helps reduce the risks of farming; you are not putting all your eggs in one basket."

Lewis Riley, the 73-year-old former state agriculture secretary, remembers when Maryland was the California of the strawberry and tomato industries.

"I remember when the trucks and even horse and buggies would come to the strawberry auction block near Pittsville, in Wicomico County, to load up on strawberries," Riley said. "And workers would load the boxcars of steam-powered trains and pack them with ice to keep the berries fresh as they were shipped throughout New England and as far west as Chicago.

"Strawberries was the money crop back then," Riley said. "It is what paid the grocery bills and put the kids through school. Very few farms had chickens back then."

As a teenager, Riley remembers the lower Eastern Shore as the top tomato canning region of the country.

"All the little towns, like Parsonsburg, where I grew up, had four or five tomato canning houses. Ninety-five percent of the tomatoes went to the canning houses," he said. "Campbell Soup had a processing plant near our farm."

Some other observations, as I toured California farming regions recently to get a better understanding of America farming and Maryland's role in the industry:

* California's agricultural abundance includes more than 400 different commodities. It is the top agriculture state in the country, with farm sales of more than $30 billion a year. By comparison, farm sales in Maryland were $1.9 billion last year.

* California has long surpassed Maryland as the nation's top tomato-producing state. It grows nine out of every 10 tomatoes processed in the U.S., with a crop value of $547 million. In Maryland, tomatoes are grouped with other vegetables, and sales for the entire category totaled $58.7 million last year.

* California grows 88 percent of the nation's strawberries. Fresh berry production totaled 1.9 billion pounds last year. It is a year-round business.

Workers in 100-acre strawberry fields along Route 152 near Watsonville were busy last month picking and packaging berries that eventually made their way to the Wegmans store in Hunt Valley and other supermarkets throughout Maryland.

While Maryland strawberries are softer and tastier, most sales are limited to a few weeks in late spring and early summer at roadside stands. They are no longer a major crop in the state.

* Maryland's dairy industry represents a sharp contrast with California milk production. While Maryland's dairy farms have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent decades, California's milk business is growing.

California has been the nation's leading dairy state since 1933. Production is growing, and farms are getting bigger. It produces nearly 20 percent of the nation's milk supply.

About 58,000 dairy cows roam Maryland's landscape, compared with 1.5 million in California.

Farm sales of milk totaled $207.6 million in Maryland last year - pocket change compared with the more than $4 billion taken in by California dairy farms.

* Wine is another area where Maryland is viewed as California in miniature.

While Maryland's wine industry has been growing at a much faster rate than California's in recent years, it has a long way to go to catch up.

Commercial wineries here are expected to produce 1.4 million bottles of wine this year. That is just a tiny part of the annual production of one California producer, Blackstone Winery in Gonzales, Calif.

Blackstone produced 14.4 million bottles of wine last year at its plants in Gonzales and Kenwood, according to the personable operator of its Gonzales tasting room who goes by the name of Cindy.

She said its merlot is the best-selling red wine in the country and tops total wine sales from all Maryland wineries combined.

Maryland has 34 wineries. California has 2,687. Maryland wine sales are expected to top $15 million this year. compared with $19 billion in California.

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