Focus Ag Turns Attention to North County

Although most of the county's agriculture is in the Pajaro Valley, the class headed north to see some smaller operations.

Focus Agriculture ventured into North County for this month's class.

We toured the farming program at UC Santa Cruz, where students from around the world come to live for six months and learn about agriculture.

We talked about the crops that grow best on the coastal benchlands—Brussels sprouts, herbs, strawberries, artichokes and broccoli, to name a few—and heard from winery owner Pamela Storrs about the burgeoning Santa Cruz Mountains wine industry.

At Jacob's Farm, which also , we toured fields of organic rosemary and savory.

The day ended at Swanton Berry Farms, where commercially-produced organic strawberries were practically invented. While seated in the cozy farm stand, Jim Cochran had a nice chat with our class about the challenges he faces as a farmer, and why his operation is unique. Swanton employees are shareholders, or part owners, in the farm. Some are housed on the property, and they receive medical care.

But the highlight of the day for me was navigating the catwalks at the Big Creek Lumber sawmill, north of Davenport.

The men on my dad's side of the family were all lumberjacks. They worked the forests and mills in Oregon's coastal mountains during the heyday of timber. Dad even put himself through college (debt-free, and bought a house) as the night watchman at a mill in the 1970s.

Although the timber industry in Oregon has dwindled, just as it did in Santa Cruz County, it's a foundation of my family. And, until this month's Focus Ag class, I'd never set foot in a sawmill.

It's a mind-boggling operation. Stripped logs come in on a conveyor belt and line up in a queue for the laser-guided saw. Technology has advanced a bit, though I imagine the green chain where lumber is sorted by hand outside outside doesn't look that much different than what my grandfather worked on.

The log is rotated as it's cut, until it becomes a rectangular beam that looks a lot like something you'd buy at a lumber yard. One person is directing the saw from a keypad. Others sort the lumber that comes off the log: irregular pieces head to a scrap heap to be chipped, some chopped into shorter sections (that 6-foot 2-by-4 you need for your fence) and others head straight out for the green chain, where they are sorted.

It looks automatic, but there are men making split-second decisions every step of the way: push a button to send the lumber for more cutting, push another to put the wood in the chipper pile.

Big Creek Lumber is a family business, started after World War II by the McCrearys, who have homesteads in the Swanton area, just over the hill from the sawmill. The timber operation employs about 67 people; more work at the company's retail locations.

Big Creek is the only timber mill left in the region that once was rife with sawyers falling huge Redwood trees.

These days, most of the timber harvested in Santa Cruz County comes off privately owned land that's being managed (no clear cuts). The company has worked diligently to manage its own forest lands, harvesting a limited number of trees annually to ensure the forest remains healthy. To do so, Big Creek uses cables (think extreme zip-lining) and even helicopters to extract trees from steep mountainsides. Those methods are more costly, but reduce impact on the land because wide roads aren't cut into the pristine forests.

Personally, I hadn't thought of Redwood timber as agriculture, but after visiting Big Creek, I can see how it that company's challenges relate to those of a strawberry grower or other farmer. They might move a little slower in the timber industry, simply because of the growth cycle of trees, but the concerns about the environment, product demand and finding a skilled labor force are similar.


Patch Editor Jennifer Squires is a member the Focus Agriculture Class XXIII. She will write about the nine-class program, which covers topics such as ethnic groups in agriculture, new technology and diversity of commodities locally grown. In addition, there are many farm tours and hands-on experiences.


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