Close to 700 people gathered April 3 in Santa Maria for the Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner to celebrate the individuals and businesses that grow, package and sell what has become the county’s largest cash crop.

The annual dinner, organized by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, is in its 29th year. The event was held at the Santa Maria Fairpark and its sponsors included the California Strawberry Commission, Rabobank, Red Blossom and Titan Frozen Fruits, among other businesses and organizations.

In Santa Barbara County in 2017, the latest year for which there is data, strawberries generated $457 million, accounting for 29 percent of the nearly $1.6 billion that the county’s agriculture industry generated that year.

On April 3, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) was awarded the Industry Partner of the Year Award. The nonprofit regularly advocates on behalf of agriculture businesses in the county.

Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB, said the nonprofit has tried to educate the public and lawmakers on the work done by local growers.

“One of my friends that was in politics one day told me, ‘a lot of business people don’t want to get engaged in politics,” he said. “Just this last week, we had to go to meetings on hoop houses. We had to go to meetings on H-2A housing, including whether or not workers could be housed in converted motels. The bottom line is there are people trying to put you out of business on any given Tuesday throughout the state of California.”

Caldwell said the agriculture industry was unique and encouraged industry leaders to be more vocal about their companies and the work they do.

“People don’t know your stories. You need to tell them your story so you’ll become a person to them and not just an item on an agenda,” he said.

The inaugural Santa Barbara County Farm Day — scheduled for Sept. 28 — was also highlighted during the dinner.

Alexandra Allen, of Main Street Produce, said the day would help the agriculture industry be understood in an era where fewer and fewer people are directly involved in growing food.

“Not too many generations ago we could kind of count on having the general support of the public because so many people had either grown up on a farm or their parents had grown up on a farm,” she said. “There was this natural connection [and] we could count on their support. But that has changed.”

During Farm Day, a number of farms, ranches, wineries and agricultural organizations plan to open their doors and invite the public for a day of activities and tours.

Mary Maranville, CEO of the Ventura-based Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture, also said she felt the industry was often misjudged by the general public, and that Farm Day could serve as a solution.

“As you know, 1 percent of the population feeds the other 99 percent,” she said. “And that 99 percent knows little to nothing about where their food comes from and that’s what Santa Barbara County Farm Day is going to do — they’re going to get the real story from all of you.”

Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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Santa Maria City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.

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