Apples and berries, steaks and dairy...and much more
Fresh and dried fruit, wine, nuts and more can be found at Casa De Fruta, a venerable stop for drivers traversing Pacheco Pass. Jim Heaphy Creative Commons
How important is agriculture to California’s economy? The bigger question is, how important is California’s agricultural industry to the rest of the United States? According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and three-quarters of its fruits and nuts are grown here.
In 2021 California’s farms and ranches generated $51.1 billion in cash receipts. The five biggest cash cows? In 2021, dairy products topped the list at $7.57 billion, followed by grapes ($5.23 billion), almonds ($5.03 billion), cattle ($3.11 billion) and strawberries ($3.02 billion).
No doubt due in part to another one of California’s biggest economic drivers—the tourism industry, which generated $11.8 billion in tax revenues alone in 2018—one can find roadside attractions up and down the state that celebrate some of California’s most abundant resources. Here are a few standouts, from north to south.
The spot is marked by a giant green olive (with pimento and toothpick) on Hall Road in Corning, which is apparently the olive capital of the world. We know this because there is a sign telling us so. Unmissable: The Olive Pit, where one can acquire everything but olive-flavored Oreos.
Pavilions of pickled vegetables, jams, oils, vinegars and olives are part of the draw at Granzella’s, a highly important caravanserai on the Portland/San Francisco route. Their Bloody Marys can patch up cases that the doctors have given up hope on, and they serve one of the best muffuletta chef salads in America. In the blissful chill of the air conditioning, the taxidermied polar bear must be a little more comfortable, and the gelato contrasts well against that unbelievable valley heat. The people watching is first-rate. Don’t bring a vegan, because the menagerie of stuffed exotic animals staring at them with glass eyeballs is going to depress them utterly.
In 1865, what is arguably the oldest continually producing cheese company opened near the border of Marin and Sonoma counties. The Marin French Cheese Company’s shop and visitor’s site is a natural pull-over on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Tours of the factory are frequent, and few leave without buying a bottle of something or other and a circle of Rouge et Noir brie, for picnicking along the incomparable coast. (Similarly the Hilmar Cheese Company Visitors Center in Hilmar, south of Turlock, is a good place to stop for sandwiches on the road south to Yosemite.)
On the outskirts of Placerville, located halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe off Highway 50, sits Apple Hill. Since its inception in the 1960s, Apple Hill has become quite the tourist magnet. It’s grown from 16 original ranchers to more than 50 growers, including Christmas tree farms and vineyards. Autumn is the busy season—peaking in October—but the area is open year round, with the berry harvest sweetening the summer months and blossoms brightening the fields in spring.
The nut orchards at Vacaville’s century-old Nut Tree are gone, and there’s nothing really left of the attempt to have minor-league baseball in this road stop halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco. But it’s a mini history lesson of sorts: a fruit stand turned tourist attraction that saw the end of its era in 1996—and then reopened in 2006 as “mixed use development, nodding to its past with historical elements while reaching into the future with new shopping and restaurants.” However, there’s still a carousel, a narrow-gauge train, and one of California’s best ice cream purveyors, Fenton’s. They had a grand century, did the Nut Tree, and it’s said that the since-demised restaurant catered the dinner when the old Queen and her consort Philip came to dine with Governor Deukmejian.
The price of eggs is a lively topic, and the history of chicken farming in California is one that needs a chronicler. The critic Pauline Kael was the child of Petaluma egg farmers back in the days when Petaluma was calling itself the egg capital of the world. The Glaum Egg Ranch in Aptos is venerable—it’s the end result of when a Nebraskan known as a model chicken farmer came west and started raising hens, grinding his own feed, and passing down the ranch to the next generation. The Glaum Ranch has a famous novelty. It’s an egg vending machine; a flat of eggs is produced when you pay up, and a chorus line of puppet chickens dance.
Gilroy is rapidly becoming a bedroom community for San Jose. And competition from Chinese farmers has made tract housing a better cash crop than garlic. Still, garlic is still grown in the vicinity, as your nose will inform you during trips on 101 through town. Tip: if you see hairy roots on a garlic bulb, it was grown nearby. Garlic World honors the town’s smelly but delicious heritage with a bonanza of pickled vegetables and garlic-flavored everything. Study up on Gilroy Garlicism with Les Blank’s unmissable 1980 short documentary Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, showing the local Garlic Festival as it was before the shootings of 2019.
One of the state’s vintage roadside attractions is Casa de Fruta, built around an orchard where the first trees were planted more than a century ago. It persists as a stop for those who either just braved twisty Pacheco Pass (1.299 feet) or are about to do so. Its attractions are numerous and all called “Casa de…” Here is a gas station with “Casa de Restrooms” and a coffee shop where they juggle the cups for your amusement. And there are children’s entertainments, such as a carousel imported from Italy and a two-mile-long miniature train ($5 pays the fare). The leafy spot is the site for the Northern California Renaissance Faire.
Mark Twain could bomb like any other comedian. One time he did so was when he laid down the gag “A cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education!” But it would be just as funny—i.e., not funny whatsoever—to state that an artichoke is just a thistle that’s doing its doctorate. In Castroville, self-styled as the artichoke capital of the world, the main landmark is the Giant Artichoke Restaurant. It’s adorned by the 20-foot-tall “World’s Largest Artichoke,” a structure made of reinforced concrete. The big herb—indeed, artichokes are herbs—celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
It’s not at the exact halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco—it appears to be about 11 miles south of that marker—but swank Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant is so close to halfway that anyone wanting to break that long LA/SF drive pulls in for lunch. That is, if they have the money to spare. It’s just south of a rather amazingly large feedlot, which you will smell if the wind is right. The Harris family began building their California agricultural empire in 1937, and though they sold the beef operation in 2018, Harris Ranch steaks are still served at the Inn and Restaurant, cooked or raw (a butcher shop is on the premises). The Horseshoe Lounge may be preferable for travelers with an eye on the clock—or one can grab snacks in the shop, including an unusually succulent beef jerky.
Near Fresno is the world’s largest raisin box, with a giant image of the pretty, bonneted sun maid that made the raisin company famous. If visiting and selfy-shooting, try not to think of Ester Hernandez’s Wacky Packs-like satire of that immortal advertising art.
Gleaming in the remorseless San Joaquin Valley heat, the World’s Largest Olive adorns a parking lot in the Tulare County hamlet of Lindsay. The olive industry has moved on but there are still olive trees in the vicinity–such trees can live 500 years or longer.
Calling itself “the 2nd happiest place on Earth” (and it’s a lot less expensive than Disneyland), Bravo Farms in Traver, California, is a mock Western movie village. Plywood silhouette of bronco riders, artisanal peanut brittle and lots of antique roadside memorabilia make this different from the other 5-villes on the San Joaquin Valley stretch of the Interstate.
This biodynamic farm is located on the Central Coast, but its reach into the culinary world is far-ranging. Southern California chefs delight in the heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties from Windrose Farm, and the proprietors recently opened their own specialty grocery in the San Gabriel Valley. At the farm in Paso Robles, visitors can check out the seasonal produce or take a tour (advance reservations required).
A berry good time can be had Murray Family Farms, with two location in the Bakersfield area: the Big Red Barn and the Little Purple Barn. The family’s blackberry varieties and hard-to-find boysenberries are well known to foodies, while families will enjoy holiday events and U-Pick days. There’s also the Cal-Okie Orchard Kitchen, a restaurant and bakery at the foot of the Tehachapi mountains, where travelers along Highway 58 can pick up comfort food and a concoction known as the Okie-Pie—an American take on the empanada that comes with sweet or savory fillings.
The Antelope Valley is rich with roadside attractions, and it’s startling to see how long some of those tourist-snaggers have been there. Take the 94-year-old Charlie Brown Farms in Littlerock. Pears and cherries are key to the local agricultural action—pears require between 200 and 800 hours beneath 45 degrees, and this high-desert area gets that cold. Several U-pick farms are quite nearby, but this vintage stand attracts passersby with county-fair food: alligator jerky, funnel cakes, barbecued tri-tip and other treats.
Tanaka Farms in Irvine is a rare survivor of the agricultural past of Orange County, run by a yonsei (fourth-generation) farmer with Japanese roots. Sixty different varieties of fruit and vegetables are grown in this nigh-perfect climate. It’s an educational establishment as much as a farm, and activities are numerous, including farm-to-fork events, pumpkin patches and tractor rides.
Located in Indio, Shields Date Garden is a 17-acre farm with a path for a little toddle among the palms. Exit through the gift shop, where they’re selling a book titled The Amazing Story of the Fabulous Medjool Date. Passersby get some extra value now, thanks to 23 statues telling the story of Jesus’s life.
Despite that spiritual draw, for decades Shields Date Garden lured people motoring to Coachella with a salacious billboard offering a free slideshow of “The Sex Life of a Date.” It’s such a well-known tourist attraction that the Los Angeles Times noted when the show was updated. Thousands have watched over the years in a little theater, while trying to suck a stubborn chunk through the straw of their date shake.
Nearby Woodspur Farms, the country’s largest organic date farm, crosses the border into Arizona. Sometimes these morsels turn up at upscale farmers markets, such as the one at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal. Not cheap, but worth it.
Bananas are fussy about soil and frosts, but they can be made to fruit in California; they grow the plants at the San Diego Zoo to feed elephants. A literal and figurative mecca for banana fanciers—it’s in Mecca, California—is the International Banana Museum. It closed during the pandemic but will definitely reopen; though no date is set, according to the website, “hopefully we will go bananas again soon!” Guinness World Records attest it is the largest museum on earth dedicated to a single fruit.
If you’re down in Rancho Santa Fe and want to shop like a big-time chef, visit Chino Farm, where culinary workers from Chez Panisse, George’s at the Cove, Mille Fleurs and other foodie havens are known to forage. Open Wednesday through Sunday most of the year, aside from a winter break and reduced hours in January, Chino Farms has no bells and whistles—just beautiful produce from beets to watercress, with many other fruits, roots, greens and herbs in between.
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