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Tomato scanned

• crop type: row
• size/shape: 4-6 feet feet tall; compact bushes or sprawling, staked vines
• leaves: long and draping with many small, deeply lobed leaflets; dark to dusty green
• flowers: up to 1 inch, 6 petals, yellow
• clues: shaggy-looking, hairy stems
• major counties: Fresno, San Diego, San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislaus, Yolo, Kings
• area harvested: 344,000 acres
• production: 13.8 million tons/year
• value: $1.5 billion/year
• fun fact: Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruit. But legally, they’re vegetables, according to a 1893 Supreme Court ruling that forced tomato importers to pay the tariff then levied on vegetables but not fruit.

When the Spanish tasted tomatoes in South America in the 1500s, they enjoyed them so much that they spread them all around the world. This savory fruit grows spectacularly well in Mediterranean climates, so it’s no surprise that California is the nation’s number two producer of fresh tomatoes and the world’s top producer of the processing tomatoes that are made into paste.

It may be a bit unnerving, however, to learn that tomatoes are in the nightshade family, which includes poisonous plants from deadly nightshade to jimsonweed to tobacco. But this plant family also has other wholesome edibles such as eggplants, peppers and potatoes.

Tomatoes come in warm colors from yellow to orange to purple, and some varieties are still green when ripe. But only the red ones contain the antioxidant lycopene, which gives them their color and is linked to healthy hearts and immune systems. Tomato plants are either determinate bushes that stop growing when the top bud sets fruit, or indeterminate vines that keep growing and producing until the first frost.

The Central Valley is the state’s star tomato producing region, accounting for 95% of the processing tomatoes, which are fleshy and thick-skinned, as well as most of the fresh-market tomatoes, which are juicy with thin skins. All processing tomatoes and most fresh tomatoes are grown on bushes. However, about 20% of the fresh tomatoes are grown on staked vines along the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Fresh tomatoes: Greenhouse-grown seedlings are transplanted into raised beds from January through June for harvests from May through December. Fresh tomatoes are so delicate that they are usually handpicked when still green, which prevents damage during transport. Later, the green tomatoes are ripened to red with ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by many fruits as they mature. The exception is Southern California’s the “vine-ripened” tomatoes, which are picked when pink.

Processing tomatoes: Seeds are planted in raised beds from January to June, and the seedlings are hand-thinned. These sturdy tomatoes are machine-harvested from July to October when they’re fully ripe, and then trucked to processing plants within 6 hours. The trucks are left uncovered to save time and are piled so high with tomatoes that some tumble out, leaving a trail of bright red splotches down the freeway. The tomatoes’ thick skins keep them from being crushed during transport, which is a good thing because a single truck holds an astonishing 300,000 tomatoes that weigh 50,000 pounds.

photo: David Besa/WikimediaCommons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron



Citrus: oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons & limes

Citrus trees bloom for such a long time—typically winter through spring and sometimes even all year—that you can see flowers and fruits at the same time.

  • crop type: tree
  • size/shape: up to 20 feet tall, round
  • leaves: up to 6 inches, long and thin, glossy, bright to dark green
  • flowers: 1-2 inches, 5 petals, white, fragrant
  • seasonal: evergreen
  • clues: oranges, tangerines and grapefruit need hot weather; lemons and limes don’t
  • major counties: Tulare, Kern, Fresno, Ventura, San Diego
  • area harvested: 270,000 acres
  • production: 2.96 million tons/year
  • value: $1.2 billion/year
  • fun fact: One of California’s first navel orange trees, which was planted in 1873, was designated State Historical Landmark No. 20 and is still alive in Riverside’s Low Park.

Originally from southeast Asia, citrus trees are frost-sensitive and so thrive in much of California. Oranges, lemons and limes made their way here with Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, and the state’s first commercial orange and lemon orchards were planted in the Los Angeles basin in the mid-1800s. Today, California is the top producer of fresh citrus nationwide, growing the most fresh oranges, lemons and limes, and the second-most fresh tangerines and grapefruit.

Members of the rue family with other aromatic plants from kumquats to curry leaf trees, most citrus trees share a basic look: round with dense leaves and, depending on the time of year, star-shaped white flowers and brightly-colored fruits that pop against the evergreen foliage. While this makes them easy to identify as a group, it also makes it hard to tell the various types apart when they don’t have ripe fruit.

Luckily, the orchard’s location provides a clue. Citrus fruits need heat to get sweet, and oranges and tangerines are concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley while grapefruits are concentrated in Southern California’s inland deserts. Since lemons and limes are tart, they don’t need heat and so do well along the cool south coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

New citrus trees are made by grafting buds onto cold-hardy rootstock. The first harvest is at about 5 years, and orchards can keep producing for about 80 years. Unlike most fruits, there’s no hurry to pick citrus because most types can stay on the tree without getting too ripe. Citrus are harvested by hand during the winter and spring for navel oranges, late winter to early fall for Valencia oranges and grapefruit, and nearly year-round for lemons and limes.

Aside from lemon trees, which have dense crisscrossing branches, citrus orchards don’t need much pruning beyond trimming. Growers hedge the sides to let in sunlight, which boosts yields, and shear the tops to make the fruit easier to reach.

Many of today’s citrus varieties came from natural mutations in the buds of mature trees. Called “sports,” these mutant buds bore fruit that was a little different from those produced by the rest of the tree. Seedless ruby red grapefruit, for example, is the result of two successive bud sports: first one without seeds, and then one that was bright pink instead of pale yellow.

photo: Ellen Levy Finch/WikiMediaCommons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




Celery may seem to be all water and fiber but it’s also a great source of vitamin K, which strengthens bones and helps wounds heal.

  • crop type: row
  • size: up to several feet tall
  • leaves: about 1.5 by 2.5 inches; flat, serrated leaflets; dark green
  • clues: leaves look like parsley
  • major counties: Monterey, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Imperial
  • area harvested: 26,600 acres
  • production: 932 tons/year
  • value: $350 million/year
  • fun fact: Celery seeds are so small that it takes a million to make a pound. And they’re so pungent that they repel mosquitoes.

A Mediterranean native in the parsley family, along with carrots, fennel and poison hemlock, celery is a cool-season crop that does best in a narrow temperature range. Heat makes the stalks tough and stringy, while freezing splits them. Most celery is produced along the South and Central Coast, where it grows year-round, and there is also a small winter harvest in the inland southern deserts. This crunchy vegetable is so popular that it’s a top 20 commodity by value in California, which produces 95% of the nation’s celery.

Celery stalks grow in a close-packed rosette from the base of the plant, forming tall, slender bunches topped by leaves that look like flat parsley. In contrast to wild celery, which is intensely bitter and has small stalks, today’s commercial varieties are mild-flavored and have lush stalks that look overengineered for supporting the delicate leaves. People have used celery medicinally for thousands of years but have only eaten it for a few centuries. The French began using it for seasoning in the 1600s, and Europeans only ate the stalks and leaves after milder varieties were developed in the 1700s.

Today’s commercial celery crops begin in the greenhouse, where seedlings are grown for 70 days. This head start cuts the field production time to 75-140 days, depending on the season, letting growers harvest an average of 2.5 crops per acre each year. Greenhouse seedlings are mowed several times to keep them compact, ultimately ensuring a uniform crop that can be harvested in one go.

Celery seedlings are transplanted mechanically into fields at nearly 40,000 per acre, and are spaced 9 inches apart along rows to accommodate their bushy crowns of leaves. This shallow-rooted crop needs plenty of water or the stalks will be bitter and tough.

Staggered plantings ensure a continuous supply throughout the year, and the peak harvest — or “Thanksgiving Pull” — is in November, when celery is in demand for turkey stuffing. Most celery is sold fresh, and these bunches are hand-cut through the taproot just below the soil surface, and then trimmed of their outer stalks and leafy tops. Celery destined for soup and other processed foods can be machine-cut.

photo: Forest & Kim Starr/WikimediaCommons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




The tiny disk flowers grow in a striking pattern formed by two opposing spirals.

  • crop type: row
  • size: up to 7 feet tall
  • leaves: large, heart-shaped, toothed edges, prominent veins; dusky to dark green
  • flower heads: up to 1 foot across; fringed with bright yellow petals
  • location: Central Valley
  • area harvested: 42,000 acres
  • value: $9.5 million/year
  • fun fact: Sunflowers were cultivated 3,000 years ago by Native Americans, who made yellow dye from the petals and purple dye from the immature seeds.

Sunflowers belong to the largest family of flowering plants, which gets its name from these cheery blossoms. The family ranges from ornamentals like daisies and marigolds to edibles like Jerusalem artichokes and lettuce. One of the few crops native to the United States, sunflowers are particularly suited to the Central Valley, where the hot, dry summers spur growth and keep diseases at bay.

Commercially grown sunflowers have robust, hairy stems that shoot up so fast that you can almost see them grow. Sunflowers also grow vigorously belowground, thrusting taproots deep into the soil to reach water and spreading surface roots for stability. Their broad leaves track the sun, soaking up as much energy as they can.

Each stem bears a single, large bud that follows the sun westward during the day and returns to face east again overnight. As they bloom, however, the stems stiffen and fix the flower heads in place. All the sunflowers in a field often face east, which protects them from the brunt of the afternoon sun. The huge sunflower heads are ringed with flowers that have showy petals but are sterile, and the central disk is crammed with up 2,000 tiny flowers that have no petals and produce all the seeds.

Sunflowers are planted each year between late March and early May, and the harvest begins as early as mid-August. When the backs of flower heads turn brown, they are dry enough for the seeds to be separated out mechanically. But farmers have to move fast or birds will eat their crop.

Seeds grown for eating usually have black and white striped shells, while those grown for oil have shiny black shells and are on the small side. Most of California’s sunflower crop is grown for oil, and it takes about 100 pounds of seed to make 40 pounds of oil. The remaining protein-rich meal is used in livestock feed. Besides producing sunflower seeds for snacking and cooking oil, the state also supplies most of the planting seeds sown by sunflower farmers nationwide.

photo: Nicolas1024/Wikimedia Commons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




Thinning helps yield large, evenly-spaced olives.

crop type: tree; often heavily pruned, sometimes trellised
size/shape: up to 50 feet tall, 30 feet across; rounded
leaves: 2-4 inches long, thin; gray-green with silvery-white undersides
flowers: small, cream-colored; fragrant; wind-pollinated
seasonal: evergreen
major counties: Glenn, Tehama, San Joaquin, Tulare, Butte
area harvested: 31,000 acres
production: 46,000 tons/year
value: $32 million/year
fun fact: The recipe for California ripe olives was invented in the late 1800s by a grower when her trees didn’t bear enough fruit to produce oil.

First cultivated in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago, olives were brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. These drought-tolerant trees need hot summers and chilly winters, making them a perfect fit with the Central Valley. California produces nearly all of the table olives grown nationwide and also exports them to half the world’s countries.

Olives are perhaps the most distinctive trees in California orchards thanks to their elegant tapered leaves, which are gray-green on one side and silvery-white on the other. The trees bloom in May, bearing clusters of tiny, cream-colored flowers that are hidden by the dense foliage. The fruits start out hard and green, and go from reddish to purple to black as they ripen. These long-lived trees can produce fruit for half a century but their yield varies widely because they have a big crop one year followed by a small one the next.

Table olives: These are mostly the familiar black, canned fruits called California ripe olives. Growers plant several varieties of olive trees to provide the range of fruit sizes from small to jumbo, and usually start harvesting about 4 years later. Harvest begins in September, when the olives are still green with just a hint of reddish purple, and continues into November. Each tree has as many as 1,000 olives and they bruise so easily that they are picked by hand.

Olives are so bitter that they are soaked in lye to leach out the acrid flavors and then rinsed several times to get all the lye out. Compressed air is bubbled in during this process because oxygen helps give California ripe olives their uniform deep, black color.
Oil olives: The state also has a growing acreage of olive trees planted for their tasty, healthy oil. Scattered along the coast, Napa region and inland valleys, these orchards produce less than 1% of the 60 million gallons of olive oil consumed nationwide each year. Trees in conventional oil olive orchards are planted every 18 feet along rows but the trend is toward high-density plantings with trees that are just 5 feet apart. Pruning keeps these trees small, which facilitates mechanical harvesting, and they yield about 4 tons of olives per acre.

Olives grown for oil are harvested when their skin turns purple but before the inside of the fruit is black. It takes about a ton of olives to make a gallon of oil, and the entire fruit—pit and all—is crushed.

photo: Olivier à Meschers/Wikimedia Commons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




Peaches are harvested as they ripen, which usually means several pickings per tree

  • crop type: tree
  • size/shape: 20 feet tall, round
  • leaves: 6 inches long, thin
  • flowers: 1 inch, 5 petals, pink, early spring
  • clues: leaves fold inward along the central vein and curve downward
  • major counties: Fresno, Tulare, Stanislaus, Sutter, Kings
  • area harvested: 52,000 acres
  • production: 819,000 tons/year
  • value: $326 million/year
  • fun fact: Peaches were brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s, and were first grown commercially here in the mid-1800s to sell to miners during the Gold Rush.

Native to China, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years, peaches need chilly winters to bloom and warm summers to boost yields. This rose family fruit flourishes in the Central Valley, which produces more fresh peaches than any other part of the country as well as nearly all of the processing peaches that are canned, frozen or dried nationwide.

Flowering usually begins in early March and the otherwise bare branches are soon thick with small pink blossoms, which self-pollinate so growers don’t need to provide bees. Graceful, curved leaves sprout while the trees are still blooming and then enclose the tiny newly-set fruit. Hard and green, young peaches give no hint of their mouthwatering future. Ripe peaches are rosy, making them easy to spot amongst the abundant green leaves.

To ensure a continuous harvest, most growers plant a range of varieties that ripen at various times from May to September. In conventional peach orchards, trees are planted every 20 feet along each row for a total of about 120 trees per acre, while high-density orchards are planted only 6 to 8 feet apart and can pack in 600 trees per acre. High-density orchards have the advantage of yielding commercial crops sooner but both orchard types ultimately yield up to 20 tons per acre each year and are replanted every 15 to 18 years.

Each peach needs a lot of room—about 6 inches—to get big, so the immature fruits are hand-thinned early in the season. Thinning also keeps the heavy fruit from breaking the branches. Peaches are harvested as they ripen, which means several pickings per tree. Because fruit is only borne on the previous year’s shoots, the older ones are pruned during the winter when the trees are dormant. Pruning also opens up the trees’ interiors and lets in sunlight to give peaches their rosy hues.

Most fresh peaches are called freestones because the flesh is barely attached to the pit, and most canning peaches are called clingstones because the flesh is firmly attached. Pits and peels are removed mechanically during processing, and the byproducts are used in animal feed and compost.

photo: Tobias Maschler/Wikimedia Commons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




Kiwifruit hanging from overhead trellises

  • crop type: vine
  • leaves: 8 inches long, rounded, dark green
  • flowers: up to 2 inches, 6 petals, white to cream, May to June
  • major counties: Tulare, Butte, Yuba, Fresno, Sutter
  • area harvested: 4,200 acres
  • production: 26,000 tons/year
  • value: $35 million/year
  • fun fact: The trunks of kiwifruit vines smell like catnip, attracting cats that can rub off new shoots when the plants are small.

Native to China, kiwifruit were originally called Chinese gooseberries. But—thanks to their oval shape and fuzzy brown skin—they were nicknamed after the fuzzy, brown kiwi birds of New Zealand, which is where the large, sweet-tart variety we enjoy today was developed. First imported to California in 1962 at the request of a single grocery store customer, these bright green fruits dotted with black seeds soon became wildly popular. Today, California grows 98% of the kiwifruit produced nationwide.

Kiwifruit vines are planted at 18-foot intervals and then trained on trellises that are either vertical, like those of grapes, or that arch as high as 15 feet overhead. The plants like sun, need cool winters to flower, and must be protected from strong winds in the spring, when gusts can snap off new growth. Because they have either male or female flowers, one out of nine plants is male to ensure pollination.

These vigorous woody vines are pruned during the summer to let light and air through the canopy, which helps keep fungi from rotting the fruit. Harvest begins in late September, peaks in October and continues through May. The egg-sized fruits hang down from sturdy stems, which are hand-cut by workers wearing elbow-length white cotton gloves. While you might think this is to protect the workers from the short, stiff bristles that cover kiwifruit, it’s actually to protect the thin fruit skins from damage. In the winter, the vines lose their leaves and after harvest the old canes are pruned back. It usually takes the vines 3 years to bear fruit, and after that they can produce for half a century.

Designated a superfood by the National Institutes of Health, kiwifruit are packed with nutrients. They contain as much vitamin C as an orange and half the potassium of a banana, and their seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. But once you’ve peeled or sliced a kiwifruit, don’t let it sit around too long. Like pineapples and papayas, kiwifruits contain an enzyme that breaks down protein. This can make them—and any foods they touch—get soft pretty fast.

photo: Jan Herold/WikimediaCommons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




A vast carrot field in the Imperial Valley

  • crop type: row
  • leaves: long, thin stalks with feathery tops; bright green
  • major counties: Imperial, Monterey, Fresno, Riverside, Los Angeles
  • area harvested: 62,000 acres
  • production: 994,000 tons/year
  • value: $500 million/year
  • fun fact: “Baby” carrots were invented by a California grower who got tired of throwing the broken ones away.

Native to Eurasia, carrots are a cool season crop in the parsley family along with anise, celery and dill. Carrots thrive in much of California, from the desert to the San Joaquin Valley to the Central Coast. Production is seasonal but the best time to grow carrots varies from region to region, letting California grow carrots year-round. The state produces about 70% of the carrots grown nationwide.

Carrots only come in white, yellow, red or purple naturally, and the commercial orange variety was developed by the Dutch a few hundred years ago. The plants have a 2-year life cycle, with the first year devoted to growing leaves and long taproots (this is the part we eat) and the second to blooming. The cluster of dainty white flowers looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, which is a wild carrot.

Growing the perfect carrot is surprisingly tricky. Hot weather makes them bitter, and they will be hairy if the soil doesn’t drain, split if the soil swings between wet and dry, and forked if the soil is full of clods. Growers break up the soil by plowing the top 30 inches, and then form 40-inch raised beds that are seeded with multiple rows. About a million seeds are sown per acre.

The long root starts out yellow-white, turning yellow and then orange over the 4-5 months it takes to mature. Turning that beautiful deep orange requires air temperatures of 60-70 F. Carrots are mechanically harvested during their first year because blooming would deplete the taproot that constitutes the crop. Harvesters dig the carrots out, lift them up, and cut off their leafy tops. These machines can harvest 1,000 tons per day, enough to fill 30 semi-trucks.

Introduced in 1986, baby carrots quickly became the most popular fresh variety. These are not true baby vegetables, however. Instead, carrots are planted so close together that they stay thin. These slender roots are mechanically cut into 2-inch lengths that are then whittled into uniform shapes.

photo: Aquafornia/Flickr
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




Raspberries protected by hoop houses

crop type: vine
leaves: spade-shaped, notched; light green on top, silvery-white underneath
flowers: small, white, 5 petals
clues: often grown under high plastic-covered tunnels
major counties: Ventura, Santa Cruz, Monterey
area harvested: 5,400 acres
production: 51,000 tons/year
value: $297 million/year
fun fact: Raspberries are close cousins of blackberries and the two were hybridized to make loganberries, boysenberries and ollalieberries. 

Members of the rose family, raspberries grow naturally in much of the world including Australia, Eurasia and Japan. The variety produced in California comes from a North American native that does best in cool, marine climates, making the central coast a perfect fit. While nearly all the raspberries produced in California are red, they also come in golden, purple and black. California grows more raspberries than any other state.

Raspberry plants have shallow roots that spread about four feet, so rows are spaced about 10 feet apart. The spiny canes, which are woody stems that sprout from the base of the plant, are trained on trellises to make it easy to reach the delicious fruit we call berries. Each raspberry is a cup-shaped cluster of small, round drupelets that develop from a single flower, and the drupelets contain one seed apiece. Unlike blackberries, raspberries are hollow and this makes them quite fragile.

California’s production season begins in May, when new fruiting canes sprout. Growers choose the best canes—looking for vigor and regular spacing—and tie them to trellis wires. The rest of the canes are cut to the ground. Raspberries are often grown under high plastic-covered tunnels called hoop houses, which keep the plants warmer so their berries start ripening sooner. Hoop houses also keep rain drops from splattering the berries with fungus-carrying soil. California raspberries ripen from June through October, with production peaking during the summer, and they are hand-picked. At the end of the season, the fruiting canes are cut back. Raspberry fields are replanted every 18 months to 5 years, depending on how long the plants keep sprouting productive canes. 

These delicate berries often break and yields are low to begin with, a combination that can make them astonishingly expensive. Even so, raspberries are the third most popular fresh berry in US, after strawberries and blueberries. California raspberries are also popular in other countries, ranking 20th in the state’s high-value agricultural exports, and nearly 60% go to Canada and Japan.

photo: Jonathan Billinger/Wikimedia Commons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron




A newly planted rice field

  • crop type: row
  • height: 3 feet
  • leaves: long, thin blades; bright-to-medium green
  • flowers: upright clusters of tiny flowers that curve as the heavy grains develop
  • clues: standing water during the spring, summer and winter
  • major counties: Colusa, Sutter, Butte, Glenn, Yuba
  • area harvested: 556,000 acres
  • production: 2,390 tons/year
  • value: $928 million/year
  • fun fact: Tundra swans overwinter in the Yolo Causeway rice fields between Davis and Sacramento.

Rice is grown in flooded fields, so it may come as a surprise that water-conscious California is the second largest US producer. But this grass family crop is native to Southeast Asia and so thrives in the hot Sacramento Valley. Moreover, much of the production in California is on clay soil that retains far more water than other kinds of soil. This soggy ground is unsuitable for other crops but perfect for rice. California produces mostly short and medium grain rice, including 99% of the “sticky” rice grown nationally.

The production season begins in March with field preparation. Because flat land conserves water, first the fields are leveled with machines guided by lasers. Then they are shaped with shallow furrows that speed the flow of water into and out of the fields. In April, the fields are flooded to 5 inches, and this water depth is maintained during the growing season. Then rice grains are sown from airplanes to keep the fields flat. Rice quickly grows to a height of 3 feet and develops long, graceful grain clusters called panicles by late summer.

The crop is ready in September. Three weeks before harvest, rice fields are drained so they can dry out enough to support the huge combines that separate the grain from the straw. Each acre yields about 4 tons of rice. The leftover straw was once burned but this polluted the air, so now most rice straw is decomposed by flooding the fields in the winter.

There’s no denying that rice uses a lot of water — about 25 gallons per serving — but this does have a fringe benefit. The Central Valley once had vast wetlands that were used by so many migrating waterbirds that they reportedly darkened the sky. While only 5% or about 200,000 acres of those wetlands remain today, they are supplemented by 500,000 acres of flooded rice fields. Millions of waterbirds use these fields while migrating along the Pacific Flyway each year. These birds also get about half of their food from the 75,000 tons of rice grains left in the fields after harvest.

photo: calwest/Flickr
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron