H-SANTA MARIA

May 10, 2012 10:00 PM by Ariel Wesler, KSBY News

Special Report: From Stem to Store

They are some of the most popular fruit on the Central Coast. We're talking, strawberries, of course.

The berries earned the top crop crown in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County this year and some of the best come from Santa Maria.

You'll likely have some of them on your Mother's Day table this weekend. In fact, local growers say one in five strawberries sold nationwide come from Santa Maria.

While a lot of people catch of glimpse of strawberry fields while driving on Highway 101, few get to see what goes on behind the scenes.

There's gold in those fields; red gold to be exact, and around this time of year, almost everyone wants to get their hands on the region's top crop.

"We're on our way to San Francisco and we always stop at the stand and buy some yummy strawberries," said one visitor.

But it takes a lot of work for those beautiful berries to make it to your kitchen table. George Chavez knows the berry business from top to bottom.

"We have 17 employees down here. They're harvesting," he said.

Those employees start their day about 7 a.m. picking and packaging with help from a machine.

"He's got the controls up here which control all the wheels. Everything's hydraulically controlled. It's got little magnetic eyes up in the front, so that way it knows it's going straight," Chavez explained.

It moves with the workers, so they don't have as far to run. While they pick quickly, a field inspector checks their also picking safely.

"She's checking, making sure they're all picking good out here in the field. She's watching them put the fruit in the trays," he said.

Once on the conveyor belt, the berries are checked again inside each clamshell.

"She's inspecting for the quality of the fruit, making sure you don't have any damaged fruit like anything else. Sometimes they get a little bruised," Chavez said.

Every worker has a number and with each sweet delivery, that number is scanned.

"She looks for the number on the side of the tray and then she just tags them and she knows exactly who they are," Chavez said.

The more berries they pick, the more money they make, but there's another number you should know. Those UPC codes scanned at the market are crucial for tracking.

"Every palette and every tray that's on there, it's got a serial number and it's got a date and the number of the lot of where the berries come from," Chavez said. "We know if something goes wrong or whatever, we can pinpoint it to the exact ranch where they come from."

When the boxes are filled, they're hauled away, replaced with empty boxes, and the process starts again from the beginning.

"They'll probably harvest maybe one of these palates a day, which is pretty good. That's 100 trays a person," he explained.

For Chavez, there's no time to waste.

"Most of this fruit will be out today. Every hour of sunlight is a day lost in shelf life," Chavez said.

About 20 percent of the nation's strawberries call Santa Maria home.

"If they're on the west coast, they're going to be shipped within a day to the store shelves and if it's on the east coast, it's going to be within 3 days," Chavez said.

Strawberry farmers work on a strict time schedule. Every two hours, berries are loaded on to a truck like this one and taken to a cooler where they undergo another inspection process.

They're weighed and graded based on their color and quality. If they receive the stamp of approval, it's into the cooler, where the berries chill to 36 degrees. The air tight seal helps preserve the freshness until the trucks arrive.

The 10,000 acres of strawberry fields across the Central Coast drive our fragile economy.

"It keeps our employees here. It keeps them shopping here and everything else, so most of the money comes back into the area," Chavez said.

Making the fruit of his labor that much sweeter.

"You can't beat a beautiful tasting strawberry."

While the strawberry festival has come and gone in Santa Maria, you can still catch Arroyo Grande's strawberry festival during Memorial Day weekend.

Strawberries in Santa Barbara County drew in $366 million the past year. They also took over the top crop spot in San Luis Obispo County for the first time in 20 years.

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