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Strawberry Farms Forever

strawberryfarmsforever1Farmer of the Year talks about the history of Watsonville, agriculture, her family and more

Diane Porter Cooley’s roots run deep in this region. Her forebears first arrived in Santa Cruz County around 1850, and were instrumental in different agricultural and institutional developments in the years since. She grew up on a farm in north Monterey County, where she remembers happily helping her father, a strawberry farmer. She moved away to go to Stanford University and spent the next few decades living everywhere, from San Francisco to Phoenix, Santa Monica to Connecticut. But she eventually found her way back to the land where she was raised, and has been living on her own farm in Watsonville for the past 30 years.

Now 80 years old and spunky as ever, Cooley has been named the 2009 Farmer of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. And although her modesty won’t allow her to accept this fact (“It’s totally undeserved. I’m a totally fraudulent farmer,” she says, alluding to the fact that she rents out her farmland to other farmers to do the growing), there is copious evidence that suggests otherwise.

“Because [the award] says ‘farmer’ of the year, a lot of people think you have to be out on a tractor,” says Jess Brown, executive director of the Farm Bureau. “But our definition of a farmer is someone who maintains an agricultural business for a period of time, and Diane and her family have done so and are committed to continuing agriculture on the land they own. She is a farmer for that reason.”

Brown adds that the award, which is in its 30th year, is given to a person who has gone “beyond just farming.” Cooley fell under this category because of her dedication to land conservation and establishing agricultural easements, as well as her involvement with countless organizations – the Cabrillo College Foundation, Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, State Park’s Castro Adobe Restoration, Women in Philanthropy, Second Harvest Food Bank and a throng of others. In fact, Brown recalls the moment her name came up for consideration for this year’s award, and several Bureau members saying, “She hasn’t been given it already?”

Home on the Range

Cooley is standing at the kitchen sink in her airy Watsonville home, a vast stretch of strawberry field framed in the window behind her. She washes off a ripe selection of handpicked strawberries and arranges them on a plate with walnuts from her walnut tree, homemade ginger snaps and a pitcher of ice water from her well. She’s determined to feed me during our interview, for which she hopes to provide a “cultural Watsonville experience.” You can relax here, she says. The town is a very industrious, “blue-collary” kind of place, but there is a prevailing air of tranquillity.

She pauses on her way from the kitchen to the backyard and, as if to prepare me for the conversation we’re about to have, turns and says, “I have a lot of opinions about everything. You can take them or leave them.”

Most of her opinions turn out to be about how things change – farming, Watsonville, life. Sounding much like a local historian (“History greatly interests me, but I’m full of baloney,” she says), she talks of how local farming has transformed, how it went from cattle land to wheat, potatoes to sugar beets, roses to row crops – the latter of which was what was around when she was growing up. At that time, the advent of the refrigerated car (“just an icebox on wheels”) allowed for successful produce business, and the adoption of irrigation methods and soil and methylbromide treatments made it possible to grow strawberries on the land for long periods of time. She gestures to the plate of berries sitting between us on the patio table, “Try one of my fresh berries, just for you.”

Cooley remembers farming before being “organic” was of any concern, and the evolution of the method’s popularity. “There was definitely no organic interest, then there was organic scepticism, now there are true believers,” she says. Although she is supportive of people growing organic, she does not – her commercial strawberry effort is just too large.

“There are many people successfully growing organic strawberries – but on a much smaller scale,” she says. “But people like to eat strawberries even if they live in Minneapolis, or all over the world, where they normally would not be able to grow strawberries.

“Here, have another,” she adds.

Her opinion is less favourable for another popular notion amongst progressives in Santa Cruz County: eating local. She encourages the act “when it’s possible,” but then I tell her that many “go local” folks believe Santa Cruz County should transition from growing luxury crops like strawberries to more substantial, staple crops in order to achieve a local food system.

“No, that’s not going to happen,” she says. “Are you kidding? To take this valuable soil and put something that you can grow better and cheaper somewhere else? It’s a very interesting question, but it leaves soil, climate and economics out of it.”

The conversation drifts to the diversification of Watsonville, a type of change Cooley finds more agreeable. Growing up in the area, there was a decent sized Chinese and Japanese population, but the demographics have expanded exponentially since that time. She boasts of the area’s multi-cultural population, and the valuable contributions of Japanese-American and Mexican-American farmers. “Being a good farmer has nothing to do with your ethnicity, neither does being a bad farmer,” she says. Slipping into history once again, she details the waves of immigration of Croations, Italians, Portuguese, and Hispanics to the area, and their roles in the local agriculture industry.

The history lesson halts. “Stand up a minute, I want to show you something,” she says. She leads me to the edge of her crystalline pool, and motions toward the backdrop of soft brown and green hills behind her yard. “You see where the hills drop down abruptly, like a cliff? That’s like the toe of the San Andreas Fault, which is moving slowly across here all the time.

“I’m used to change, but I like it slow,” she continues. “We’ve got to remember that in our lives – if you change a little bit all the time it’s not such a shock.” As for the evolution of farming and diversity in the area, she says, “It’s all geology, just like the fault. The Pajaro Valley is moving slowly and revealing its structure.”

The visit wraps up as the warm afternoon yields to a breezy evening. Cooley has a busy night ahead of her: dinner with her 23-year-old grandson, also a Watsonville farmer, and her English as a Second Language class, for which she is a tutor. She shoves another handful of plump strawberries into my hands as I walk to my car. We say goodbye, but before I pull away she says, “My father was a strawberry farmer. So am I. Strawberry fields forever.”

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