Strawberries on the “Slowcoast”

Nine miles north of Santa Cruz lies the small town of Davenport, CA – population 408, elevation 259.

Like many people, I took a trip to Davenport to pick strawberries. Because this part of coastal California is home to more acres of strawberry cultivation than any other place in the world, and we’re smack dab in the middle of the summer growing season, an adventure to the famous Swanton Berry Farm seemed in order.

Swanton Berry Farm was the first strawberry farm in California to be certified as “organic,” and the first organic farm with unionized (AFL-CIO) workers. The majority of their business is focused on selling product to grocers and farmers’ markets; however, they do allow folks like me to go out into one of their fields with a cardboard tray and a few words of advice (“pick only bright red fruit!”) to harvest as much fruit as we want. “U-pick” sales are done on the honor system – there’s a scale and a cash box on a table in the store.

The day I went to pick berries was a foggy one; not an uncommon occurrence on the central California coast. In downtown Santa Cruz, the fog generally lifts by about 10am. A little further north, however, it can linger longer, making the day feel slightly lazy. Perhaps that’s why people refer to this area as the “Slowcoast” – a moniker I discovered after wandering around Davenport for while.

Davenport was founded in 1867 by John Pope Davenport, who built a shipping wharf right off the coast. The pilings of that wharf are still visible from the bluffs above Davenport’s striking beach. The population increased at the turn of the century when the cement factory was built north of town and a railroad connected Davenport with Santa Cruz and beyond. The cement factory stayed open under several names (most recently “Cemex”) until 2010 when it was closed – in part because of battle with the EPA. It had been emitting both mercury and the carcinogen chromium 6.

In an interesting turn of events, the Cemex land is now in the process of becoming yet another fabulous protected coastal property – the San Vicente Redwoods. The 8500 acre parcel of land, which is home to several endangered and endemic species, was purchased in 2011 by the Living Landscape Initiative, a consortium of several area land trusts. These organizations are working through the process of getting a permanent conservation easement on the land and determining both who will manage it and how it will be managed. There will be trails (some of them have been started) and there are murmurings about town that singletrack mountain bike-designated trails could be a part of the new system. This is exciting news for avid trail riders like me…and it’s an addition to the area that might make the “Slowcoast” a little less slow.

 

 

Right now, there’s one hotel in Davenport. Most people drive right through town on their Route 1 journey. Some stop to pick berries, grab some coffee and baked goods, or spend a little time on the beach, but for the most part, they stop for only a short while. The “wind people” are the exception to that rule.

 

Nearby Waddell Creek is one of California’s premier windsport spots, popular with hang gliders, windsurfers, and kitesurfers. If you’ve never seen kitesurfing, it’s what it sounds like – a cross between surfing and kiting, where the athlete is on a board surfing waves but being assisted by a kite that at times lifts the ride up and into the air. All the kiteboarders I’ve known are addicts. They’ll travel as far as necessary for good conditions, and from the sound of it, Davenport has those fairly regularly. I’d imagine that if they had more facilities in Davenport to keep them busy in the evenings, they’d stay there rather than in Santa Cruz. Add to that mix a bunch of mountain bikers looking for new trails to ride, throw in the usual array of tourists making the Route 1 drive, and before you know it, you’ve got a quite the little tourist town.

But that’s a glimpse into the future – perhaps. For now, there are three restaurants, a bakery, a post office/dry goods store, and a cement church famously photographed by Ansel Adams. There are also a handful of streets filled with houses whose residents have decorated their property with quirky art, brilliant flowers, and all manner of succulents. It’s a gateway to strawberry fields, and lonely surfing beaches.

And it’s still slow.

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