Consider the sweat expended to raise strawberries. Not during harvest time, though that effort too will drench many a shirt. But during the meticulous, multifaceted process to build those tidy, elevated rows that are home to Ventura County's prized strawberry crop.
Sculpting the plastic-covered soil is a kind of craft. Each row--acre after manicured acre--is a months-long, work-in-progress structure.
The loam must be just right to form, like a ceramist requires perfect clay to throw. A grower's tools--from bare fingers to heavy farming equipment--are the sculptor's chisel, the painter's palette.
The arduous procedures to erect the next season's beds will begin soon after the last berry is plucked from its tired mother plant. In Ventura County, this system of renewal will commence in late July. Field preparation will take about eight to nine weeks. There is a deadline to meet.
The grower must adhere to a strict calendar--all the while maintaining a prayerful eye on unpredictable Mother Nature. If a field is not ready to plant in October, the harvest is in danger of a belated entrance to the lucrative January wholesale market. Financially, it's the difference between a dart piercing the bulls-eye or missing the dartboard altogether.
Guided by the expertise of grower Doug Wagner, what follows is a step-by-step look at strawberry field preparation.
"There's no rest between harvests," said Wagner, who raises his own berries on 100 acres in Oxnard and also is a ranch manager for Bob Jones Ranches, Ventura County's largest strawberry grower.
Once the season-ending berries are picked, the plastic is lifted and the soil is once again exposed to the elements. Irrigation drip tape, too, is removed and discarded.
Like a bread maker mixing and kneading dough, the farmer will rework the dirt starting from scratch.
The bared beds are laid low with sharp, tractor-drawn discs, which are dragged across the acreage, churning the earth. This step is repeated no less than four times.
Beneath this now-billowy layer of soil still lies tightly compacted earth. Enter the rip knife: a curved, sort of arrow-shaped device engineered to impale the ground and then pulled through the field.
"We're going down about 36 inches and ripping the soil to loosen it up," Wagner said. "For 10 months the soil has been compacted and it needs to be thoroughly aerated."
In some years, if time allows, maybe a "cover crop," such as barley, will be grown and folded in to the earth to boost soil-bound nutrients.
But usually this step is skipped and the field is sprayed with a powerful fumigant. Tarp is set on top of the soil to contain the lethal dose. Parasitic worms, root diseases and weeds cannot be allowed to compete for an investment that commonly reaches $10,000 an acre.
The covering will remain for about six days, and then it will be time to smooth and flatten the land to table-top perfection. "We try to get [the field] as level as possible for irrigation purposes so the water won't puddle," Wagner said.
Irrigation pipes and sprinklers are hauled in to soak the parched soil. The purpose is twofold. Accumulated salts, harmful to the berries' root system, must be driven down or leached out. The moisture level must be raised, a necessity when forming the parallel beds.
Having reached the proper soil consistency, the machine that will re-create the groomed beds is brought in. Moving gradually across the field, the bed-shaper builds 15-inch, perfectly aligned furrows, forming two-feet-wide beds.
A grower's tedious chores are now about half completed before the baby strawberry plants will be sown.
Fertilizer is strewn just below the bed surface. The bed-shaper is fired up again to smooth things out. Next, drip tape is sunk--shallow, about an inch--down the middle of each bed and then tested. Adjustments are made.
It's time to tent the beds. Plastic is laid down snugly, a protective, reinforcing skin that will shield the beds from pelting rains, winds and other miscellaneous hazards.
Next: "A round wheel with spikes--pulled by a tractor--is rolled over the tops of the beds," Wagner said. These punctures mark the spot where the fledgling plants will sink root.
The incubated seedlings--born from fifth-generation mother plants raised in Oregon and Northern California--are delivered to the growers in a chilled, dormant state. "This helps to prevent transplant shock," Wagner said.
The calendar now reads October and the fields must be planted.
Each baby strawberry plant is painstakingly sown by hand. Each acre can accommodate about 25,000 plants. About 4,400 acres of Ventura County countryside are devoted to strawberries.
Ventura County's temperate climate allows growers to harvest in January, beating competitors in Northern California, Florida and Mexico to the punch. Here is where astronomical costs are covered. Payrolls are met. And profits made--if nature gives its OK.
The lucrative fresh market will last until mid-May or early June. "The fruit will start breaking down and other areas [of the country] will take over [fresh market] production," explained Wagner. "They have the better fruit, so we [sell] to the cannery"--where wholesale prices are not nearly as favorable.
The growing part of the perpetual cycle now winds down: "The plants are at their end," Wagner said. The persistent but failing plants will produce fruit at a falling rate through mid-July.
Then it's time again to start preparing for the next round.