In our busy farming region, these five crops are tops

02/17/2014 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 9:00 PM

We’re farmers and proud of it. Maybe our “back 40” is a 5-by-8-foot raised bed in the backyard, but we like to grow food almost as much as we like to eat it.

And no wonder: The Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth. Hundreds of crops are grown commercially here, but some particularly stand out. They’ve earned the Sacramento area a national (sometimes global) reputation for quality as well as quantity.

Some are better known (and perhaps appreciated) outside Sacramento than in our own backyard. That’s why it’s good to know these five foods that say “Sacramento” – especially if you live here.


Not counting “City of Trees,” our most commonly known civic nicknames must be “Sackatomatoes” and the “Big Tomato.” This region grows megatons of toms. Look at any area freeway in August; the pavement runs red with spilled cargo from haulers destined for the canneries.

California’s tomato industry is a $1.3 billion business. Tomatoes rank in the top 10 of all California crops and are the state’s No. 2 vegetable (or should that be fruit?), behind only lettuce.

Tomatoes are undeniably the agricultural star of Yolo County; canning tomatoes represent Yolo’s top crop, accounting for almost 37,000 acres and $111 million in sales in 2012.

For home gardeners, the tomato is the No. 1 backyard crop of choice.

In greater Sacramento, make that virtually every gardener – it seems we all plant at least one vine, and most often, many more.

Woodland hosts its annual Tomato Festival each August, including a taste test for the best tomatoes. Perennially, the taste champion is a little gem – Sun Gold. But there are many others to grow; more than 7,500 varieties are available with new ones introduced every year.

The most popular tomato varieties for Sacramento home gardeners? Early Girl, Better Boy, Champion and Ace; all are considered can’t-fail.

The craving for heirloom tomatoes carries over onto restaurant menus. Local chefs scour farmers markets for the best heirlooms or grow their own. Topped with basil and fresh mozzarella, heirloom tomato salad may be Sacramento’s signature summer dish.


Remember “a can a week”? Those Smokehouse almonds originated in Sacramento.

California grows virtually all of the nation’s almonds, with plenty extra for export, too.Blue Diamond, the century-old Sacramento-based cooperative, is owned by more than 3,000 California growers. The co-op’s Sacramento facility on C Street sprawls over 90 acres and employs about 1,000 workers.

As the world’s largest tree nut processor, Blue Diamond saw its net sales rise from $594 million in 2005 to $1.01 billion in 2012. Its boom is pushed in part by such products as gluten-free almond flour, almond butter and almond milk.

Thanks to location, Sacramento became the almond industry’s historical hub. The Central Valley boasts ideal growing conditions for this crop. “They have to grow in this climate,” said Blue Diamond’s Dave Baker. “They need a cold winter to produce fruit, a mild spring for bloom and a dry, hot summer. We have it all.”


If you love sushi, thank Sacramento rice farmers. That’s our grain.

Sacramento is surrounded by “sushi rice.” More than 580,000 acres grow within 100 miles of the capital. That’s about 95 percent of California’s $1.8 billion crop. Most of it is marketed as Calrose, which formed the foundation of the state’s rice industry after World War II.

Sacramento grows so much rice because of soil and climate – namely hardpan clay, mild winters and hot summers. The clay keeps irrigation water from seeping quickly into the soil.

Farmers here have grown rice for almost a century, but the starchy varieties that thrive here weren’t as popular with Americans as long-grain rice from Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. So most of our rice went to export. Then Americans fell in love with sushi. Calrose rice cooks up soft, moist, sticky and flavorful – perfect for sushi.

“It holds together better,” said chef Taro Arai of Mikuni restaurants. “You need it starchy. Long-grain rice, you can never make a roll with it. California grows a variety that’s exactly what we want.”


With newfound popularity as an antioxidant-packed superfood and natural allergy fighter, this little citrus is the signature crop of Placer County. Dozens of family-owned orchards dot the Sierra foothills near Penryn, Loomis and Newcastle. Each November, the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival attracts more than 30,000 people to Auburn’s Gold Country Fairgrounds.

Originated in Japan about 700 years ago, mandarins – also called owari satsumas – were first planted in Placer County in the 1880s.

“Our trees are 70 years old and quite large,” said Steve Pilz, Ed’s grandson and a third-generation mandarin farmer who owns Pilz Produce at Hillcrest Orchard near Penryn.

Sacramento has discovered this edible gold rush. In local counties, annual mandarin consumption tripled over the past decade, according to a recent UC Davis study. We’re supporting local farmers – and sneezing less, too.


Although Sacramento is well known for hatching wild salmon and steelhead trout, another local river fish – California white surgeon – has become the backbone of a surging culinary industry. Sacramento is now the nation’s caviar capital.

“We’re the leading U.S. producer of caviar. Internationally, we’re known as one of the best alternatives (to wild caviar),” said Sterling Caviar farm manager Peter Struffenegger.

Sterling operates three large fish farms in Sacramento County that produce about 80 percent of all domestic caviar. Tsar Nicoulai Caviar also farms in the Valley, raising its sturgeon in Wilton.

Sacramento-farmed caviar is an international hit as a sustainable alternative to wild. Among the top markets: Russia.


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