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Santa Maria: location led to destiny

When European and other settlers first came to what would become the Santa Maria Valley in the late 1700s, it didn’t look like it would eventually become an agricultural powerhouse. Scrub brush was the main crop in those days.

Yet its fertile valley, close proximity to the cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean and its year-round temperate climate made its destiny clear. Owned by Mexico in the early 1800s, settlements began to appear as the Mexican government issued large land grants to some of its country’s most well placed landowners. Cattle was its first use but crops did not follow far behind. In 1848, the Santa Maria Valley, as part of California, was ceded to the United States.

In 1897, the Union Sugar Co. of San Francisco created the first irrigation system in the Santa Maria basin to grow sugar beets. In 1909, a flood destroyed the system but it was not rebuilt as farmers had already discovered the huge underground aquifer that could provide life-sustaining water to their crops.

In later years, hydrologists estimated the aquifer to be eight miles wide, residing on 110,000 acres and containing more than 10 million acre feet of water, though only a small percentage of it is actually available for irrigation purposes.

Today, the agricultural region known as Santa Maria actually stretches about 40 miles from Lompoc in the south to Oceano in the north. Most of the region lies in the northern of Santa Barbara County with the city and valley of Santa Maria being its epicenter. The most northern reaches of the district reside in San Luis Obispo County. Santa Maria the city is about 170 miles north of Los Angeles and 270 miles south of San Francisco. Closer by are the cities of Santa Barbara — 60 miles to the south — and San Luis Obispo — 30 miles to the north. The Pacific Ocean is west of Santa Maria about 15 miles. Guadalupe, home to several major grower-shippers, is also west of Santa Maria, within several miles of the ocean.

The history books credit G. Allan Hancock with developing modern agriculture in Santa Maria. He purchased the railroad line serving the area in 1925 and soon built up several industries to utilize his asset. He also introduced new irrigation methods, and invested heavily in packing sheds and an ice plant. Others followed suit and by the mid-1930s, his railroad, the Santa Maria Valley Railroad, was hauling many carloads of sugar beets and other vegetables out of the valley. As the strawberry industry developed and wine consumption became more popular, Santa Maria added those crops to its arsenal.

Today, Santa Barbara County’s agricultural output has created a $1.5 billion industry, with the Santa Maria Valley being the focus of that production. Its top 10 crops are strawberries, broccoli, wine grapes, cut flowers, nursery products, head lettuce, cauliflower, raspberries, avocados and celery. In 2015, each of these crops accounted for more than $43 million in sales led by strawberries at $438 million, which far outpaces the second place finisher, which is broccoli at $164 million. Wine grape production was particularly prolific in the last 20 years with much grazing land converted to viticulture. Strawberry acreage has also seen a big increase in the past decade.

Vegetable production as a whole remains a vital part of the agricultural landscape representing more than a third of revenues at about $540 million in 2015. Staple vegetable crops, including the aforementioned broccoli and lettuce, are the mainstays, but the Santa Maria area grows virtually every vegetable shipped from specialty baby vegetables to kale to Swiss chard to brussels sprouts.

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