California is the “land of plenty.” Seriously, go there, and you will find yourself drowning in delicious and amazing produce of all types. If it grows, chances are it’s grown somewhere in California. This is especially true in the central California region, spanning from Sacramento at the north edge down to north of LA. This region, often referred to collectively as “Central Valley,” hosts a fantastic variety of agricultural operations.
If it grows, you will find it there.
In Illinois, we tend to focus on the major commodity grains, sans rice. That means we specialize in corn primarily, then soybeans, then wheat. We also raise over 90% of the processing pumpkins in the U.S. (“Processing pumpkins” are the ones that are deemed best for “processing” to be used for things like pie filling, baked goods, pre-made desserts, etc. If you buy something from the store that has pumpkin product in it already, you can thank Illinois!) There are also isolated pockets of cut flower growers, potatoes, herbs, and a few other odds-n-ends specialty crops. In Illinois, you are definitely set apart from the herd as a specialty producer.
In California, just about everyone is a specialty grower of one kind or another. In California, the specialty crops ARE the commodities. When you look at the statistics, they totally blow my prior midwestern perspective of specialty crops out of the water.
Specialty crops aren’t just an odd-ball operation drowning in the middle of an ocean of cornfields. In California, they make up the majority of the agriculture industry. Over 99% of domestic almonds, walnuts, avocados, artichokes, and figs are grown in the Golden State. Countless other products are raised exclusively, or almost exclusively, in California.
For a long time, I’ve claimed to be “in touch” with where my food and other agricultural products come from. In a way, I have been, moreso than is common for Americans. I can eat a steak and understand the processes and choices involved in producing that beef. However, there were so many things I took for granted. Spending three months working in California agriculture has made me aware that once upon a time, I had no clue where the almonds in my trail mix were grown. I never stopped to realize that someone had to grow the figs that filled that Fig Newton cookie I was eating. The avocados in my guacamole had to come from somewhere, too. The tomatoes in my salsa and sauces and ketchup started off somewhere too, most likely NOT Illinois.
What’s the moral of this story?
I’m not sure there is one. But I think the term “specialty crop” has earned a new meaning for me. As I sit at my kitchen table looking out the window at my family’s corn field, currently gaining the first touches of golden color for the fall, I smile. Corn may be what I was raised around, but thanks to California, I have a much deeper understanding and respect for where my non-commodity foods come from.
Think hard about the products you use in everyday life. Do you really understand the care and work that goes into raising the agricultural products involved? If you could visit one type of specialty crop operation, what would it be and why?