Sweet Crusade: Jim Cochran's Strawberry Secrets
Enlarge Image Credit: Barbara RiesWhy strawberry farmer Jim Cochran made flavor his mantra
On a clear September morning, I set out for the source of California's most delicious strawberries—quite a trip if you take the scenic route. South of San Francisco, you trace the cliffs of Devil's Slide until the two-lane highway—and your grip on the steering wheel—relaxes. A couple of hours later, just north of Davenport, you see a 1950s pickup truck on the side of the road with hand-painted signs declaring HERE LIES SWANTON BERRY FARM. It's a storybook scene: a view of the Pacific, a farm stand stocked with fresh baked pies. But read through the news clips on the wall, and a weightier tale emerges. When Jim Cochran founded Swanton, in 1983, he was just another hippie farmer. But he became the man who unlocked the secrets of growing strawberries without pesticides and paying workers a fair wage to do it.
When I visit Swanton, late in strawberry season, I find Cochran at the farm stand. With his shock of white hair and scuffed sneakers, the effect is more "dad on weekend" than "agricultural pioneer." But while Cochran may keep a low profile, his strawberries have achieved celebrity status. Each summer, they're transformed into scarlet coulis and compote at Berkeley's Chez Panisse; they fly off the tables at the nine farmers' markets and 34 Whole Foods stores where they're sold (always in open containers, not the typical plastic clamshell boxes, so that shoppers can smell their heady perfume). Wherever Cochran's berries are available, they're never more than a few hours' drive from where they're grown. The delicate fruits, which workers pick ripe and never refrigerate, lest it dull their flavor, would never survive a trip much longer than that.
It was flavor that ended up being the key to growing organic strawberries—a feat considered impossible back in the early 1980s, when Cochran was working as the business manager for a cooperative of strawberry farms. Every day, he drove south from his home in Santa Cruz to the Salinas Valley, where he helped small growers, most of them Mexican immigrants, compete against industrial farms. The farmers he worked with relied heavily on toxic fumigants, like the now-banned methyl bromide, which killed off the fungi, insects, and weeds that are particularly problematic in strawberry growing. Until the use of fumigants became widespread, in the 1960s, commercial berry production required crop rotations so diverse that they made industrial-scale growing impossible. Fumigants fueled the berry industry's boom in the '60s, and they were adopted on farms of all sizes.