Ag Venture Tours: See America’s Salad Bowl

After you’ve toured the California coast along Monterey Bay, visited the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, shopped along Cannery Row and dined on Fisherman’s Wharf, take a drive inland a few miles to the Salinas Valley. Salinas Valley stretches a hundred miles north to south, sandwiched between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges. Fields of lettuce lay before you—neat rows of romaine, red leaf, green leaf and iceberg. Bright red, luscious strawberries dot other fields, or you may see celery, spinach or asparagus. You’re also bound to come across farm workers hand picking the produce and packing it right in the field. You’ve entered America’s “salad bowl,” where farmers grow over 40 vegetables and fruits, including over 80 percent of America’s lettuce. The best way to see the valley and to learn about how America’s produce is grown is on an agricultural tour with Ag Venture Tours.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in U.S. Long Cuts. We are merging U.S. Long Cuts with Midwest Wanderer, adding a “Beyond the Midwest” menu option.

Lettuce fields, Ag Venture Tours
Green leaf and red leaf are two of several kinds of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley.
strawberry field
Strawberries grow on a layer of plastic to keep the fruit clean and avoid rot.

Evan Oakes, owner of Ag Venture Tours, who was our guide, is a wealth of agriculture information. He has two educational degrees in agriculture, specializing in viticulture, and has spent a career in the agriculture industry, including time as an assistant farm advisor in Monterey County. He started Ag Venture Tours in 1997 and regularly hosts agricultural and winery tours, oftentimes for groups of farmers visiting the area.

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We met up with Evan at Pezzini Farms in Castroville, the artichoke capital of the U.S. Before hopping aboard the tour van, Evan took us into an artichoke field, where he showed us how the artichokes grow and are harvested, as well as how the plants are maintained. Ninety-five percent of the nation’s artichokes are grown in Castroville, which has the ideal climate and soil for artichokes. It’s rarely sunny, always cool, but never freezing. The topsoil goes down a hundred feet, making for the most fertile land in the country.

Ag Venture Tours, artichoke farm

For every mile that you go south in the Salinas Valley, the temperature rises half a degree, so while the north end may be only 50 degrees, the south end could be 100 degrees, creating many microclimates throughout the region. The north end is ideal for growing artichokes, and the south end is more suited to vineyards.

However, lettuce is the largest crop by acreage. Lettuce covers a hundred acres and can be grown year-round. The other significant crop is strawberries, which is also the most lucrative per acre. Strawberries are continuously harvested from April through October.

harvesting strawberries
Strawberries are hand-picked and packed right in the field.

You never know, and neither does Evan, what crops you’ll see on a tour, since crops rotate and most have specific growing seasons. You can be sure, however, that Evan will point out a big variety and fill you in on how they’re grown and harvested. Besides lettuce and strawberries, we saw celery, broccoli, cabbage, fennel, cauliflower, peas, grapes, raspberries and more. Did you know that celery plants grow to about three feet tall? It’s cut down to about a foot and the leaves are removed at harvest.

Ag Venture Tours, celery field
Would you recognize this as celery? Most of the leaves are trimmed off when it’s harvested.
Raspberry farm seen on Ag Venture Tours
Raspberries are grown under a canopy of white plastic to shade the plants and protect them from the cold.
Vineyards on Ag Venture Tours
The southern part of the Salinas Valley is ideal for vineyards.

Harvest of almost all vegetables is done by hand. You’ll see lots of machines in the fields, but most of them are used in packing. For instance, workers hand cut and band spinach. They lay it on a conveyor, which takes the spinach inside the machine where other workers pack it.

Ag Venture Tours, spinach
harvesting spinach

Major produce companies have big plants here, companies such as Dole and Fresh Express that package ready-to-use lettuce and Driscoll, the leader in strawberry production. These companies often subcontract crop growing to individual farmers but bring in their own crew for the harvest.

Unlike other areas of the country that use migrant workers for seasonal harvest, in the Salinas Valley farm workers are often full-time employees, since operations are year-round.

Since most of the fields in the area are farmed for large corporations, you don’t see too many mom-and-pop farm stands alongside the road. One exception is The Farm, which has a produce market and also offers tours and seasonal events. Directions to The Farm are on their web site, but you’ll know you’re there when you see the life-size sculptures of actual people who work there.

The Farm sculptures
Sculptures of farm workers at The Farm are of real people who work there.

Coming from an agricultural area that grows mostly corn and soybeans, we thought we knew a lot about agriculture and weren’t sure what to expect on our half-day agricultural tour. But Salinas Valley agriculture is so different from what we’re used to experiencing. It’s a whole different farming world here, and truly fascinating. Our adventure with Ag Venture Tours was well worth the time spent.

If you take an Ag Venture Tour

Ag Venture Tours offers full- or half-day agricultural tours, wine tasting tours, sightseeing tours, and even a kid-friendly family fun adventure throughout the Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay area. Check the web site for details or to book a reservation.

Accommodations: Find the best Salinas hotel deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor.

Disclosures: We received a deep discount on our Ag Venture tour. However, all opinions are our own.
This article contains an affiliate link, which means that if you book a hotel room through the TripAdvisor link above, I will receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.

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