*Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post by the California Strawberry Commission, who I work with as a blogger ambassador. My travel to Monterrey, California was paid for by the commission, which allows me to share this incredible experience with you. Photo by Robert Durell Photography and Christy Wilson. 

Last month, I had the honor of being selected to experience an educational tour and culinary experience with my fellow California Strawberry blogger ambassadors in the beautiful cities of Monterey and Salinas, California. Among the group of eleven, I was one of five Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN) on this #GetRealInCA tour. We not only learned about strawberry agriculture, farming and nutrition, we were exposed to a variety of unique dishes made with strawberries. Most importantly, we got to experience picking and tasting strawberries right off the vine and spent time with local grower and owner of Fresalva Berry farm, Jesús Alvarado.  Here is a recap of my incredible experience over this two-day adventure.

After a long flight and taxi ride, I reached the picturesque, quaint town of Monterrey, CA. Breathtaking ocean views and cool breezes were a welcomed change from the blistering Arizona desert heat! Upon arrival, I was asked to film a quick promotional video for this tour and although I didn't feel quite ready, I jumped right in (thanks for the great direction, Jeff Daly!)! Check it out: 

Our first experience as group was dinner at Montrio Bistro in downtown Monterey. Chef Tony Baker prepared an amazing array of strawberry dishes that demonstrated the versatility of this little berry. From the crispy smoked pork belly with balsamic compressed strawberries, feta cheese and oak honey, to the roasted Alaskan halibut in a berry broth, this meal was incredible. The most unique culinary interpretation was definitely the Strawberry Elderflower "Soda Pop" Strawberry Pop Rocks dish. In the first part of my recap video, you can see me experience this live (mouth full of strawberry and all!)!

The following day began with educational talks from experts in the fields of science, nutrition and agriculture. Carolyn O'Donnell from The California Strawberry Commission discussed farming methods and technology in agriculture including pest control methods (my favorite was the huge bug vacuum that hovers over the plants and sucks-up pesky bugs!). Teresa Thorne from the Alliance for Food and Farming spoke about the nonprofit organization and consumer resource site SafeFruitsAndVeggies.com. One of the most interesting features on this site is the Pesticide Residue Calculator where people can find out the dose-response relationship between pesticides from particular foods and adverse effect levels. Did you know that a child could consume 1508 servings of strawberries in one day without any effect, even if the strawberries had the highest pesticide residue recorded for strawberries by USDA? This dispels claims made by the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Dirty Dozen list that discourages consumers to choose certain conventionally produced fruits and vegetables (including strawberries).  Main point: Whether fruits or vegetables are organically or conventionally grown, the health benefits of eating them more FAR outweigh any risks!

Here are more highlights from our educational talks:

  • Nearly 90% of the nation's strawberries are grown on approximately 40,000 acres that span along the California coast
  • All year long, more than 400 family farmers grow strawberries and many of these families have worked on the land for generations
  • The Salinas Valley is referred to as the Salad Bowl of the World because it's one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world
  • California strawberry growers are leaders when it comes to researching ways to conserve water and practice non-chemical farming methods
 Jesús Alvarado. Strawberry farmer who realized his American dream with hard work, dedication and lots of heart. 

Jesús Alvarado. Strawberry farmer who realized his American dream with hard work, dedication and lots of heart. 

Next, it was off to the strawberry field! We made our way into the bus and headed to the nearby town of Salinas where Jesús Alvarado met us at his beautiful farm. Mr. Alvarado shared his American Dream realized story with us and it resonated with me because, like my dad, he comes from a large family in Mexico and came to the U.S. seeking the opportunity for a better life. Born the third of nine children, Mr. Alvarado began working before the age of 10 picking strawberries on the weekends to help financially support his family. He migrated to the Watsonville area in the late 1970s and 20 years later, the opportunity to partner with another local grower presented itself; though surprised and a bit intimidated at first, he went for it! 

Alvarado states that out of all the skills he has gained over the years, "the best, was (learning) English." In his 20's, he accepted an employer's offer to learn English from a tutor, which marked a major turning point in his career. His bilingual skills have allowed him to conduct business on the industry-end in English and fluently communicate to his employees in Spanish (most of them exclusively speak Spanish). Today, Alvarado manages over 80 acres of strawberry fields and employs over 100 workers. His conventionally and organically grown strawberries are shipped (and enjoyed!) all around the world. When asked how important strawberry farming has been to his life, Alvarado states, "It has meant everything," as it has provided, and continues to provide, everything he and his family have today. 

For more personal stories from strawberry farmers, check out this page.

Jesus Alvarado and Christy

Every strawberry seen in every market has been hand-picked and is packaged right on the fields. As the photos indicate, this is a highly labor intensive, physically demanding job. Alvarado states that several of his employees have been working with him since he started his business and they have become like family to him.

Proud to be a blog ambassador for California Strawberries!

Our fantastic group of CA Strawberry Commission employees and blogger ambassadors at Jesus Alvarado's Fresalva Berry farm. Photo by Robert Durell Photography

Field workers pick every single strawberry by hand. 

After our afternoon spent on Fresalva Berry farm, we headed to our gourmet strawberry outdoor picnic lunch that was catered by the talented Jasmine Wolf and her staff from The Lobos Truck. The menu included amazingly creative dishes including a Farmer's Cheese Stuffed Strawberry, Strawberry Ceviche Blanco that was served inside of a grilled avocado (YUM!), waffle fries with strawberry ketchup and a fantastic strawberry shortcake and popsicle duo. Check out the photos below. 

My RD colleague and friend, Toby Amidor, presented a fun and informative talk titled, "8 Reasons to Eat 8 Strawberries a Day." Some highlights:

  • One serving of 8 medium strawberries provide 45 calories, 140% of Daily Value for vitamin C, 12% of Daily Value for dietary fiber and only 7 grams of (natural) sugar
  • The American Diabetes Association identifies berries, including strawberries, as one of the top 10 superfoods for a diabetes meal plan
  • Researchers have discovered an eating plan that may help lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND diet is inclusive of strawberries, as they are rich in compounds (like anthocyanins are phytonutrients) that can help protect brain function. These powerful natural plant chemicals also happen to protect the heart! 
  • Strawberries are not a dessert-only food!  As demonstrated on this tour, strawberries are a highly versatile food can be added to savory, salty or sweet dishes. Whether they are used in a BBQ sauce, added to fish or folded into a whipped dessert, it's good to know that this healthy food can be included into any meal in so many different ways!

Many thanks to the California Strawberry Commission, Jesús Alvarado, Chefs Baker and Wolf, Modern PR, Inc, and my blogger colleagues for this unforgettable experience! 

For strawberry recipes and inspiration, check out my recipes as well as recipes on CA Strawberries Commission's website and Heart of Farmers website.