(Aug. 22) SALINAS, Calif. — When viewed from a plane, the Salinas Valley looks like a patchwork quilt with its vast collection of fruit and vegetable fields painting the landscape in shades of green and red.

Newly harvested plots intersect with fields awaiting crews, adding an array of tans and browns and, in the far north side of the valley, the rich, dark color of coffee.

Bracketing these fertile areas are two mountain ranges that sing with an Irish green for a few months during late winter before being burnished into a majestic gold by the strong winds during the dry season.

The history of the valley’s people can be seen in much the same way, with a jumbling and mixing of colors and characters. For certain, this fertile valley has seen its share of growing pains, from occasional economic downturns to labor issues to troubles acclimatizing a variety of cultures.

But two things have created a universal bedrock upon which the success of the Salinas Valley is based: a love and respect for the land and its bounty, and the urgent desire by all who came to the valley to create a better life for themselves and their children.

On Sept. 1, a new museum will open to honor the Salinas Valley, the people who have struggled to turn it into the salad bowl of the world and the bedrock of determination they all shared.

The National Steinbeck Center will open its agricultural wing with a 5,800-square-foot exhibit called the Valley of the World Agricultural History and Education Center. It’s been a long time coming.

“The discussion began even before the opening of the National Steinbeck Center,” said Kim Greer, chief executive officer. “The feeling was that the agricultural community wanted a museum. It’s perfect that we can put two related cultural resources under one roof.”

The pairing of Steinbeck and agriculture is both logical and ironic. Steinbeck, of course, wrote eloquently of Depression-era agriculture in the Salinas Valley and of the experiences of Okies and immigrant workers. However, Steinbeck remains somewhat controversial even today, because his writings weren’t always particularly complimentary of agricultural companies.

“I get a kick out of all this,” said Pete Maturino, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1096. “Steinbeck would roll over in his grave. I mean, an agriculture museum funded almost 100% by growers? Steinbeck was basically run out of the county. It’s ironic.”

That said, Maturino thinks the museum organizers are conscientiously representing diverse viewpoints and telling the whole story of the valley’s history.

“They’re doing a great job,” he said. “They’re telling the facts, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. They’re trying to show the whole picture.”

Grower-shippers are excited about the museum as well. It’s a good way to introduce tourists as well as produce buyers to the history of the valley, they said. The museum will give visitors a better understanding of the companies that produce their food today.

Basil Mills, founder of Mills Inc., said the strength of the museum is the same as the strength of the valley it reflects: the diversity it encompasses.

“It tells many, many stories,” Mills said. “A lot of them are on video, and we can add to it as we go along. We honor the founders of this industry, and we honor all the different workers — the Chinese, the Swiss, the Japanese, the Filipinos, the Mexicans and the Okies.”

Visitors won’t just take away a piece of history with them, Mills said. They’ll also get information about 5 a Day and the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“A lot of customers come here and want tours,” said Steve Church, co-owner of Church Bros. LLC, which is itself a founder of Fresh Kist Produce LLC. “Normally ag companies show their customers their own fields and sheds, and a lot of people have said it would be nice to see things in context. I think the museum is a good showcase.”

It also expands the Steinbeck Center’s ability to be a community center and a place where community groups and companies can schedule events. Fresh Kist, for example, is having its annual company harvest party there in October, said Kori Tuggle, director of marketing.

The museum is certainly an accomplishment of which the community can be proud, said Robert Kasavan, owner of produce brokerage Robert Kasavan Marketing. His cousin, Peter Kasavan, was the architect for the agricultural wing.

“Little ole Salinas has put together this amazing Steinbeck Center and ag museum,” Kasavan said. “I went to Atlanta and saw the house of Margaret Mitchell, who wrote ‘Gone with the Wind,’ and there was no comparison. The people of Salinas have truly backed the Steinbeck Center. It’s not just a museum, it’s a community center.”

The Aug. 25 edition of The Packer features a pull-out tabloid section about the Valley of the World Agricultural History and Education Center.


Kim Greer, chief executive officer of the National Steinbeck Center, says the new Valley of the World exhibit is a prime example of a partnership between the private and public sector, as it got funding from individuals, companies and the state. He stands in front of a mural showing Marilyn Monroe, who was a Castroville artichoke queen early in her life.