Rooting for carrots
Mar./Apr. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Darren Simon
Photos by Kevin Marty
Imperial Valley family carries on a local tradition
The Strahm family has grown carrots in the Imperial Valley for more than 60 years and today it is the largest vegetable crop on their 4,700-acre farm. Three generations of the family pose among the neat rows. Patriarch Walter, center, and matriarch Jane, right, are joined by Roy, Ellison, Cindee, Eva, Nancy, Ralph and Christine.
In the pre-dawn hours as temperatures dip into the freezing range in California's desert southwest, the Strahm brothers gather with their crew to assign field duties for the morning.
Then, as an emerald glow licks the eastern sky, signaling the sun's rising over the Imperial Valley, the oldest brother makes his way along the winding roads between vast fields of green as he heads toward one of the family's particularly important crops.
His destination is a field where a young crop of carrots is halfway through its six-month cultivation cycle toward harvesting.
It's a crop that gives Ralph Strahm and his family a sense of pride.
"It's a good feeling because it is produced for export and for domestic consumption," he said. "And what we produce is a dependable product. It gives our country a sense of security of production in its food supply."
Ralph Strahm uses a tractor to tend to one of the fields.
While the family farming operation, Strahm Farms Inc., diversifies into an array of crops—both field crops, like sudan grass and alfalfa, and vegetable crops—growing carrots is a tradition that dates back more than 60 years. As many as 700 acres of the Strahm Farms 4,700 acres are set aside for carrots each year. Carrots represent the largest of the family's vegetable crops. The next largest is lettuce at 240 acres.
"It's been a good crop for us over the years," said Roy Strahm, one of the three brothers who operate Strahm Farms. "For the customer, it's a good healthy vegetable for a good price."
In the Imperial Valley, once an inhospitable desert before pioneers in the early 1900s found a way to bring Colorado River water into the valley—giving birth to fertile agricultural land—the carrot has long been an important crop. It plays such an integral role in the local economy that the vegetable is celebrated every February in Holtville, one of seven cities in the Imperial Valley, in an event known as the Holtville Carrot Festival (www.holtvillechamber.org). This year marked the 64th annual festival, which is traditionally celebrated with a parade and carrot cooking contests.
Ralph Strahm walks through a carrot field with about two months left in what is a six-month growing cycle.
Statewide, California farmers produced about 62,000 acres of carrots in 2009, with about one-quarter of that grown in the Imperial Valley. In recent years, carrots have ranked 17th among California's top 20 livestock and crop commodities, valued at nearly $500 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We know that California carrots are preferred by consumers nationwide," Ralph Strahm said. "Carrot producers throughout California are producing the best carrots and their production helps the state economy."
The Strahms' crop includes conventionally grown carrots, organic carrots and processed carrots (also known as baby carrots). The crops the family grows are packaged and marketed by two Bakersfield companies with national and international reach. Those companies, both of which have been in the carrot-production business for more than 30 years, are Grimmway Farms and Kern Ridge Growers.
Grimmway contracts with 13 growers in the Imperial Valley and farms its own carrots in the area. Frank Riddle, who manages operations for Grimmway in the valley, said growers like the Strahm family make it possible for Grimmway to market carrots year-round.
The valley is the center of Grimmway's carrot production this time of year. Between February and May, as many as 225 truckloads per day leave the valley for Grimmway's production line in Bakersfield.
Riddle added, "The Strahms are one of our top producers."
While family members point out that growing the best crop possible is a matter of professional pride, it is also a way of honoring their agricultural heritage.
It all began when Fred Strahm, Ralph's grandfather, immigrated to the United States from his native Bern, Switzerland. Although he first settled in Washington state in 1920, he moved to the Imperial Valley in 1923.
"There was a promise of more opportunity in the Imperial Valley, because of the recent diversion of Colorado River water, which opened up a whole new region of farming and dairying," Ralph explained.
Fred Strahm, who married another Swiss immigrant, Bertie Schaffner, worked in the dairy business as he began to build his life in the valley. He started out working for other dairy farmers, but he and his wife eventually purchased their own dairy cows. By the time their two sons, Walter and Ernest, reached adulthood in the 1940s, the family had sold the dairy and were growing crops. Carrots were added to the mix in the 1950s. Fred and his sons farmed as Strahm & Sons.
"We started out slow, but as we farmed we kept purchasing more land as we were able to," said Walter, 79.
In 1980, brothers Walter and Ernest decided to split the family operation, though they continued to work together.
Walter, his wife Jane and their three sons, Ralph, Loren and Roy—all of whom joined the family operation after finishing college—formed Strahm Farms Inc. Carrots remained critical to the new family venture.
For Jane, it means a great deal that her sons have followed in her husband's footsteps.
"They've stayed on the farm with us," she said. "A lot don't come back, but our sons did decide to farm with us."
Ralph, 54, Loren, 53, and Roy, 49—all licensed pilots who use flying as a tool for monitoring their crops—head the family business. At the same time, the fourth generation of Strahms has joined in and represents the future.
Loren's sons, Eric, 25, and Matthew, 23, finished college and have returned to join their grandfather, father and uncles in running the family farm.
"After I earned my degree in business, I did an internship in business for a while, but then I wanted to come back," Eric said. "This makes me happy. It's a lot harder work than you would expect, but it is rewarding."
Ralph's daughters, Christine, 23, and Melanie, 21, are still in college, but he said they have voiced an interest in having a role in the family farm. As for Roy's children, they are only 1 and 4.
The next generation is also learning what it means to become involved in the community.
Ralph has served on the Imperial County Farm Bureau for four years and is a past president of the Water Conservation Advisory Board, an organization of farmers who advise the Imperial Irrigation District, the Imperial Valley's water provider, on conservation matters. In that capacity, he has been a voice on water issues affecting all farmers and water users.
Now, Eric, for example, is a board member of the county Farm Bureau and is vice president of the valley's Young Farmers and Ranchers, the next generation of farmers who are lending their voice to critical agricultural issues.
As upcoming family farmers join in the operations, the Strahms say they expect the carrot crop will continue to be an important part of the farm. Growing carrots, they point out, is meaningful not just because it is a way of providing safe, quality food to the country, but it is a crop the family can enjoy from their own fields.
"It's a special pride because we can bring them home to the family, and we can cook them together and talk about what's going on in the field," Ralph said. "So that is a very special aspect."
Darren Simon is a reporter in El Centro. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.