Salinas Valley is a vegetarian's dream: Crisp lettuces. Sweet strawberries. Prickly artichokes. Deep-green broccoli. Crunchy celery. And onions and mushrooms and cauliflower and raspberries and peas and cabbage and asparagus and on and on. Washed down with a nice chardonnay or pinot noir.
But it wasn't always that way.
The earliest inhabitants scratched out what they could for themselves. Then, for a time, cattle, not people, were the biggest grazers in the area. Crop farming didn't really take root until the last half of the 1800s, spurred by population growth, use of irrigation, and improved planting conditions after flooding washed rich top soil to the valley floor.
Pushed along by experimentation and innovation, the list of crops has evolved and expanded. In the late 1800s, "sugar king" Claus Spreckels brought sugar beets to the area, setting up a processing plant and the company town that still bears his family name. When the sugar market faded, landowner Andrew Molera (who has a Big Sur state park named after him) introduced artichokes to the area as a replacement crop, according to "America's Salad Bowl," a history of the county's biggest industry, by Burton Anderson.
In the 1920s, "green gold" arrived as farmers began conquering the lettuce market, planting the seeds to the crop that remains king of the county today. By the end of that decade, the area had earned the "salad bowl" title, by Anderson's count, with 48 packers and shippers listed in the local phone book. Today, it supplies about 80 percent of the nation's lettuces.
Growers have continued to pioneer planting, harvesting, packing, packaging and shipping techniques, expanding their offerings and their markets. Bagged salads, pre-cut fruits and vegetables, premium wines, organics, potted orchids and more, valued at more than $3 billion annually, are coming out of the patchwork of farms that blanket the Salinas Valley.