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Nestled in coastal California between the agriculturally rich Oxnard and Salinas districts, Santa Maria is sometimes considered an adjunct to one of those two growing regions. But it is an area with a long agricultural heritage and some unique characteristics that give the district its own identity.

Richard Quandt, the longtime president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, acknowledged that "sometimes we are considered the stepchild of Salinas, but we have a longer season and we think our quality is every bit as good. Most of our guys stay in this area all year. Because we have a longer season, we don't have to go over to Huron [for shoulder season production] and most of them don't go down to the desert [for the winter]."

The Santa Maria district is comprised of the Lompoc Valley to the south and stretches through Santa Maria northward to include the growing plains of Nipomo, Oceano and Arroyo Grande. Mr. Quandt said that there are about 40,000 irrigated acres under cultivation, which has not changed much since he joined the association 29 years ago. There has been some urbanization, which has taken some land out of production, but "we are now growing on some of the land with sandy soils that was never cultivated before. The advances in irrigation technology, especially drip irrigation, have brought that land into production."

He added, "We have a nucleus of family farms that have been here for a long time. There is not too much cross-over from Salinas."

While Santa Maria does enjoy great weather and the coastal land is sought after as in other California regions, it is right between Los Angeles and San Francisco, too far to commute in either direction. Hence, it has been somewhat insulated from the rapid growth that tends to occur closer to the larger cities as they push past their original boundaries.

Santa Maria, and the towns around it, have experienced growth, but Mr. Quandt said that basically the same plains that were used for vegetables in the 1980s and 1990s are still being used today for one crop or another.

Santa Maria is a major producer of the staple vegetable crops, led by lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and celery. Broccoli, cauliflower and celery are produced all year, and lettuce usually starts in late March or early April and lasts through the summer and well into the fall.

"The first lettuce fields will be cut next week," Mr. Quandt said March 26. Most of the vegetables, he said, are used for carton production. "There is not too much [value-added] around here," he said, which seems to be a good thing during the economic downturn.

Mr. Quandt said that while everyone is feeling the pinch of the recession, the growers he talks with seem to be faring well. "I am most concerned about our smaller growers," he said. "There has been an increase in the number of small family farmers, especially Hispanics, that are growing maybe 10 or 20 acres of strawberries. I'm concerned about their ability to get financing."


Move toward strawberries
It is the strawberry acreage that has given Santa Maria its most notable trend. "This year we have about 1,000 more acres of strawberries that have been converted from vegetable acreage," he said.

The move toward strawberries has occurred for several reasons. In the first place, vegetable markets have been weak for most of the past couple of years, so growers are always looking for better options. Mr. Quandt said that more important, new strawberry varieties -- most notably the Albion -- seem especially well suited to the Santa Maria growing conditions.

"It has extended our season significantly," he said. "We use to produce strawberries from the spring to the early summer, but now we go from early spring to late fall."

Strawberries have been a winning crop for several years, so the long season makes them more profitable than vegetables in an average year on a per-acre basis. "The demand for strawberries seems to be growing every year," Mr. Quandt said. "We keep planting more and the market remains strong."

He said that in 2008, growers in the Santa Maria district grew about 7,000 acres of that specific berry; this year, that number has climbed to 8,000 acres. The increase has come from both inside and outside the community, as some local growers have increased their acreage and some of the larger Watsonville growers have also come down here and added production.

"We've become the district of choice," he quipped.

While fresh vegetables have always been the anchor for the Santa Maria district, other crops have made some inroads. Besides the increasing acreage of strawberries, the area is home to an increasing number of wine grape vineyards. Over the last decade, California's wine grape crop has grown significantly with production increasing in virtually every growing district.

Mr. Quandt said that for the most part, the grapes are being grown on the eastern side of the valley near the mountain range that helps define the valley. They are not competing with vegetables and strawberries for the fertile plain land.

Another important crop category for the Santa Maria district is the transplants grown in greenhouses. The cool ocean breezes offer the perfect climate for greenhouse production, and the Nipomo plain, just north of the city of Santa Maria, is home to three of the state's larger greenhouse transplant operations. Many growers are moving toward transplants and literally tens of millions of plants are started in those greenhouses each year.

The Santa Maria district's location has also blessed it with sufficient water to handle its needs. The aforementioned mountain range that runs along the eastern side of the valley provides sufficient watershed to fill the underground aquifers during most years. While both the state and federal water projects are predicting very low water allocations this year, Santa Maria does not use any of that water.

"We haven't had a lot of rain this year, but we've had enough," said Mr. Quandt. "We don't anticipate any water-shortage issues."