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Salinas Valley's reputation on the line

In Salinas native John Steinbeck's famous novel "The Grapes of Wrath," there's a scene where a turtle encounters great obstacles trying to cross a highway. After much hardship for the turtle, a trucker swerves to hit the turtle, clipping its shell and sending it flying off the road. The turtle lands on its back but manages to right itself and move on. The scene encapsulated the theme of perseverance that wove through the entire novel.

Today, the Salinas Valley is that turtle. It is still lying on its shell, struggling to get back to its belly. But it will ultimately right itself and move forward.

As a point of accuracy, San Benito, Santa Clara and Monterey counties were identified as having fields in which spinach implicated in the recent E. coli 0157:H7 incident was grown. Yet of the three counties, only Monterey County lies in the Salinas Valley. The distinction is relevant because virtually all media reports lump the three counties and the source of the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in spinach to the Salinas Valley.

It may be that the E. coli outbreak in spinach doesn't trace back to Monterey County and the Salinas Valley in the end. But all three counties likely will forever be linked with the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in spinach.

Other than Gilroy Foods and Gilroy, CA-based Christopher Ranch (in Santa Clara County), which is synonymous with garlic, if the world at large has any recognition of Santa Clara County, the association likely is as follows: Santa Clara County = San Jose = high-tech industry = Silicon Valley. Not farming. Natural Selection Foods (Earthbound Farm) and Pride of San Juan have established varying degrees of name recognition over the years, but that doesn't transfer to broad public recognition of San Benito County, which is where both are based.

The Salinas Valley (in Monterey County) is a different story, with worldwide recognition as the "Salad Bowl of the World."

At least one grower in Santa Cruz County -- parts of which abut Monterey, Santa Clara and San Benito counties -- in recent days has taken to placing stickers on its packages that say, "Grown in Santa Cruz County." One suspects the stickers reflect less a point of pride in Santa Cruz County than they are a way of distancing the company from identification with the Salinas Valley and Monterey, Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

Then along comes the lettuce situation with Salinas-based The Nunes Co. and Mexico's over-reaction in banning U.S.-grown lettuce. An ugly trade situation is unfolding in the wake of Nunes' responsible and noteworthy step of enacting a voluntary recall of its green leaf lettuce as a precaution. In this instance, the root of generic E. coli - found in a reservoir used as a secondary water source - clearly traces back to Monterey County and the Salinas Valley.

The E. coli outbreak in spinach and the Nunes recall -- where as of this writing, there appears not to be any E. coli 0157:H7 present in either irrigation water or heads of lettuce -- undoubtedly will be lumped together to some degree in the public's perception, given the close timing and geography.

Group these events with other E. coli outbreaks traced back to the Salinas Valley and the broad media attention those episodes have been given in recent times, and there has been palpable damage done to the reputation of the Salinas Valley as a source of fresh produce. Perhaps never before has Salinas Valley agriculture faced such a task of restoring its image.

But there's a whisper on the wind for farming operations around the Salinas Valley. It comes from The Grapes of Wrath, from the lips of Ma Joad: "Why Tom, us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people, we go on."