Farmers live by the words, "You reap what you sow." If you are a California strawberry farmer, those words are never more true than during the holiday season, when growers take time to cultivate their strong ties to the community.
The roughly 500 family farmers in California who grow strawberries are intricately linked to the economic and social wellbeing of their employees, local schools and area businesses. Many are multi-generation enterprises with deep roots in their communities. Some began with a few acres and expanded over decades and across generations, building their farms and strengthening their ties to the community.
The winter holidays are the peak giving season for farmers and their families. Though growers harvest year-round in California's prime berry growing regions, you'll find them involved in holiday gift drives, scholarship programs or festive employee dinners during the holiday season.
One such grower is Ed Kelly, a fifth-generation farmer who has been growing strawberries in Watsonville for 40 years. During the holidays, Kelly turns his warehouse-size cooler, which is idle during December, into a makeshift Santa's workshop where local community groups stage a giant gift donation program. Now in its third year, the gift drive has grown steadily, attracting more volunteers and donations. Also in December, the cooler will host a 200-person holiday dinner for the families involved with Jacob's Heart Children's Cancer Support Services.
But, the Kellys don't just give to the community during the holidays: he and his wife, Jean, started a foundation in 1996 devoted to helping those less fortunate. The Jean and Ed Kelly Foundation raises and distributes money for scholarships and programs for the arts, athletics and education for young people in Santa Cruz County.
"When I was eight years old, my grandfather told me it was our responsibility to share our good fortune with other people," said Kelly, whose family has been farming in the Watsonville area for more than 160 years.
As the harvest season draws to a close in Santa Maria,grower Luis Chavez of L&G Farming begins a season of giving back. Employees receive a Thanksgiving turkey and look forward to the annual Christmas Social, a celebratory barbecue where workers enjoy a good meal and gifts. Employees also get extra time off to spend time with their families.
"We try to give them the best work environment," said Danny Chavez, who now works with his father on their strawberry ranch. The company also supports Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army and Berry Christmas, a Santa Maria toy donation program.
Third-generation Orange County strawberry farmer Matt Kawamura and his brother, A.G., the former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture, grow strawberries on 750 acres. The family's Orange County Produce company is the largest fresh-produce donor to the Orange County Food Bank and the local Second Harvest Food Bank. Matt's wife, Jeana, volunteers with Girls Inc., a non-profit organization that aids the physical, intellectual and emotional development of young women. Throughout the year, the Kawamuras also donate time and resources to the non-profit organization Padres Unidos, which is focused on educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all.
In California, strawberries are always in season. Five growing regions in the state ensure that strawberries are available in stores, not just in the peak harvesting months of April through July. In winter, strawberries ship from Southern California. With the warming spring temperatures, production moves north to Santa Maria, and then Watsonville and Salinas.