by Caroline

Every Sunday morning, just two blocks from my house, our neighborhood farmer’s market lets me witness the seasonal cycles of California produce and other farm products. Valentine’s Day was the last day for satsumas, for instance, so I bought several pounds for our trip; the woman who sells me eggs explained she’d run out earlier than usual because “The ladies are slowing down.” Our farmer’s market, like many, is made up of small family farms: they bring their kids; they borrow change from the neighboring stand; they may run out of produce and close up early. California agriculture as seen from my farmer’s market every week is low-key and pretty casual.

The California agriculture I saw out the car window last week on our road trip is an enormous machine; it’s the California that feeds this country. One statistic I read says that the state grows “more than half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts from less than 4% of the nation’s farmland.” Driving across that less than 4%, as we did on our drive east and south to Yosemite, and then south some more and west to Santa Barbara, is hugely educational and although I’ve done the drive before, doing it with the kids this time I paid even more attention than usual. I highly recommend loading up the car with the kids, snacks, and books and doing it yourself some day if you can.

This time of year, the orchards are just starting to bloom; we passed almonds, walnuts, peaches and other stone fruit (it’s hard to tell the difference between all the different trees from 70 mph). We saw orange groves that stretched out to the horizon, the trees heavy with big orange globes, and then, as we got closer to Santa Barbara, the spreading branches and shaggy leaves of avocados, their fruit hanging like so many heavy green rain drops. We passed farm stands advertising lobster tails and avocados at 10 for a dollar but because we were nearing the final miles of a six-hour drive and a stop would have made it hard to get the kids ever back into the car, I thought a little sadly of lobster tail burritos with guacamole, and we drove on.

In southern California I was lucky enough to visit two farmer’s markets: a small one in Montecito, and a much bigger one in Santa Barbara. I counted five different kinds of avocados (Pinkerton, Fuerte, Bacon, Hass, Zutano) and was amazed to see that it was already spring, from a produce perspective: the farmers offered snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and loads of tender herbs (at which point I finally remembered to take out my camera):

Then there was the small slice of California agriculture we saw out the window of our cousins’ home; they’re renting a place where the backyard is planted with a half dozen avocado trees. The New Yorker in me was amazed at the bounty (sadly none of it ripe):

The kids just loved playing with the great sticks and the dried-out pits that had fallen from the trees. Our cousins have a lemon tree, too, and this again, for someone who is tending one small potted lemon tree and finally got one planted in the ground this spring, amazed me; even the kids were notably impressed by the size of some of the fruits:

Driving from Santa Barbara back home, our car now fragrant with a grocery bag full of lemons, we crossed miles of grape vines, producing for both wine and table; acres of romaine and other lettuces; and plenty more fruit and nut orchards before the landscape gave way to the beautifully soft, uncultivated green hills of the South Bay. The farms represented at our neighborhood market aren’t visible from these big highways, but now that we’re home I can’t wait to see what they’re selling this week.