Home & Garden

Quick – how does broccoli grow? The crop-challenged can find answers here

In an out-of-the-way corner of Cal Expo grows the bounty of California.

Fruits, vegetables, grains and more fill 3 1/2 acres, tucked behind the wine garden and Building B between the Cavalcade of Horses and Raging Waters.

When the State Fair opens Friday, Cal Expo celebrates its 50th summer as the home of its one of a kind California exposition. That includes The Farm, a living sampler of the state’s many crops.

“It’s the shimmering green jewel of the fair,” said Sabrina Rodriguez, media director for the California State Fair. “People don’t wander back here but they really should. There’s just so much to see.”

“If you count the pineapple guavas, we now grow 90 different edible crops,” said Zsi Widman, Cal Expo’s agricultural programs manager, who oversees The Farm. That harvest ranges from artichokes to watermelons.

More than a huge agricultural display, The Farm provides tons of fresh produce for local food banks. (So far this summer, it’s already delivered more than 1,000 pounds of just zucchini.) It’s also one of the few State Fair staples that actually operates year round.

With a patchwork of field crops, The Farm was first planted in 1984 to illustrate to city folks how food is grown. In recent years, that agricultural display has significantly broadened its scope and appeal, aimed at suburbanites and city dwellers long removed from agricultural ties.

“This year, we’re really pushing The Farm and what California has to offer,” said Keith Breedlove, in his third year as the State Fair’s official. “Our agriculture is best in the nation, really the best in the world. The people who put together this program did an incredible job.”

The Farm’s evolution fits the way we Californians eat, farm and garden now. That includes more hydroponics and aeroponics as well as vertical and container gardening, squeezing more food production into limited space and truly bringing edible gardening home.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” Widman said. “They want to eat healthy. They’re really interested in food. But until they come out here, they may not know how broccoli grows. They may have never seen Brussels sprouts growing on a great big stem. They’ve never seen kiwis clustered on the vine.”

The Farm’s diversity mirrors its state, noted Rick Pickering, Cal Expo’s chief executive officer.

“At the time of the Gold Rush, California’s main crops were wheat and corn,” he said. “We were a bread basket. During the Gold Rush, people migrated to California from around the world. They brought their own tastes and the foods they desired. Within 30, 40 years, we shifted from a bread basket to become the fruit and vegetable capital of America.

“We still provide more than 90 percent of the fruit and vegetables grown in America. The diversity of our crops reflect the diversity of our people.”

Italian and German immigrants brought wine grapes; those first vines formed the foundation for California’s wine industry. That contribution is celebrated in a new “Farm to Glass” exhibit inside the expanded wine garden.

“Except for water, everything we drink we grow,” Pickering said. “That’s part of our diversity, too.”

It’s not just fruit and vegetables; Asian immigrants brought their favorite rice and that crop stuck, too, he added. “Now, California provides more sweet white rice to Japan than Japan can grow.”

In addition to edible crops, The Farm features several home gardening displays including how to attract pollinators and alternatives to lawn. During the State Fair, more than a hundred UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners will offer advice and answer questions.

Breedlove uses The Farm as the starting point for his twice-daily cooking demonstrations during the fair. His Farm favorite: The striped Green Zebra tomatoes. (They’re sweet enough for a fruit salad.)

“I show what grows together, goes together,” he said. “It’s seasonal at its best, using all these beautiful herbs and tomatoes. I can’t tell you how much delight I get, showing kids the herbs and how to pick a tomato or cucumber.”

Young visitors often have the most memorable reactions, Pickering noted. “That’s what I like best about The Farm: The kids. Watching the expression on a child’s face when he bites into a ripe plum or when they see the watermelons on the vine for the first time. They’re so excited. This is a new experience for a lot of kids, getting to see food actually grow. It’s not fast food or out of a can.”

Actually growing these crops is the responsibility of Farm manager Santos Perez and his crew.

“We planted 12 varieties of tomatoes this year,” Perez said. “I try to grow different kinds to show tomatoes can be yellow, black, purple, striped. People think tomatoes are always round and red. They’re surprised to see black tomatoes.”

Likewise with Perez’s tri-colored cornfield. “(In addition to yellow and white corn), I planted purple popcorn,” he said. “It looks like Indian corn. I tend to put something different in every year.”

What’s amazing is how fast these crops grew, he noted. These veggies loved the June heat wave.

“I planted all this six weeks ago (in mid May from transplants) and now look at it,” he said. “We have to pick almost every day.”

Most of the harvest comes after the fair closes, but that’s OK.

“The Farm doesn’t end at the fair,” Pickering said. “We host school tours in spring and fall. Last year, we hosted 5,000 kids from as far away as Fresno, Red Bluff and Santa Cruz.”

Working with teachers, Widman sees The Farm as a living classroom. She encourages students to visit in spring when most crops are first planted, then again during harvest to see how they grew.

“People come from all over to tour our little farm because it’s really spectacular,” Widman said. “And they can always come back and see more.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

California State Fair

Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

When: July 14-30. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays.

Admission: $12; seniors (age 62 and up), $10; youth (ages 5-12), $8; children age 4 and under admitted free. Parking, $15. Discounts available with online ticket purchases through Thursday, July 13.

Details: www.castatefair.org