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20th Year Is Especially Sweet for Strawberry Festival in Oxnard

The event marks Ventura County's ripening into the nation's second- largest growing region for the popular fruit.

May 18, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

It can be a messy business, this one of turning a year older, but Rachel Flickinger didn't realize how much so when she decided Saturday to celebrate her 20th birthday by volunteering for the Tart Toss competition at the California Strawberry Festival.

Staring down a long line of youngsters eager to lob slices of strawberry pie, the Oxnard resident poked her head through a wooden cutout and emerged minutes later plastered with pie crust, whipped cream and gooey red berry parts.

"I've got strawberries in my ear," said Flickinger, trying her best to undo the damage with a handful of paper towels. "I signed up for this, but I didn't know those kids could really throw."

Like Flickinger, the California Strawberry Festival celebrated an important milestone Saturday, as Oxnard's annual tribute to all things strawberry turned 20 years old.

The two-day festival, held in Oxnard's College Park, draws tens of thousands of visitors each year and pumps an estimated $7 million annually into the local economy.

The festival also highlights Ventura County's top crop, which generated a record $231 million in sales in 2001, the latest year figures are available.

County growers have nearly doubled the amount of land dedicated to strawberries over the last decade, expanding by 85% since 1993.

The acreage increases -- growers are farming a record 8,794 acres this season -- have changed the face of the farm economy and established the county as the nation's second-largest strawberry producer. Only the Watsonville-Salinas area produces more.

The festival celebrates that success and helps spread the wealth, as dozens of nonprofit groups are invited to set up food booths that generate an average of $200,000 annually.

On Saturday, the Rio Mesa Athletic Boosters pushed strawberry pizza while the Oxnard Ambassadors sold strawberry blintzes. A youth football team from Camarillo peddled strawberry crepes while their counterparts from Port Hueneme sold strawberry lemonade.

Long lines formed in front of Pacifica High School's strawberry nacho stand, where athletic boosters served up a concoction for the iron-stomached: fried flour tortillas dipped in cinnamon and sugar and topped with strawberries and whipped cream. Last year the recipe helped raise $5,000 for athletic programs at the recently opened Oxnard campus.

"We serve the original," said booster club parent Kelly Mendoza, helping out on a production line that included students, parents and coaches. "It's a big seller."

So are the strawberries sold by Bob Jones Ranch. The Oxnard strawberry producer, owned by Watsonville-based California Giant, sold 1,500 flats -- about 9 tons of berries -- at last year's festival.

By midday Saturday, the grower was ahead of that pace as customers flocked to the booth, drawn in part by 6-year-old Michael Riordan, who hugged a big bowl of berries and gave one away to anyone who asked.

"This [festival] is great -- it gets everybody thinking about berries," said Pat Riordan, Michael's father and the owner of California Giant. "Hopefully, when people are done with these, they'll go to the nearest grocery store and buy some more."

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The strawberry festival concludes today at College Park, 3250 S. Rose Ave. in Oxnard. Gates open at 9:30 a.m. and close at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $9 general, $5 children 5-12 and seniors.

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