Ray L. Travers: Three Generations of Apple Farming in Watsonville, California 1875-1977
- Author(s): Regional History Project, UCSC Library
- Travers, Ray L.
- Knaster, Meri
- Jarrell, Randall
- et al.
In 1977 the Regional History Project interviewed Ray L. Travers, a native of Watsonville, California, and a major figure in Pajaro Valley agriculture, as part of its series of oral histories documenting local agricultural and ethnic history.
Travers was born in 1921 into the thriving community of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, who began settling in the valley during the 1870s. His paternal grandparents arrived in Boston about 1875, where they met and married. They traveled by train across the country and settled in Green Valley in Santa Cruz County in 1876, where a distant relative lived. They bought some land, planted an apple orchard, and eventually farmed 200 acres while raising a family of 13 children. Travers's maternal grandfather was a whaler and his grandmother a Monterey native.
Travers's recollections begin with a description of his family's early history in the Pajaro Valley during the 1870s. He gives the details of family farming practiced by his grandfather's generation when the whole family worked side-by-side in the orchards. He discusses the many apple varieties which were then grown and how they changed over the years according to the dictates of the market. He also speaks about the Portuguese community's food, customs, and festivals in the valley and throughout the state.
Travers's father was an apple grower, and one of the first farmers in the valley to grow lettuce in the 1920s. In 1939 he became partners with the Sakata family and established an apple packing shed. When a fire destroyed the shed he sold out to Sakata, who continued growing lettuce. After World War II, he rebuilt the storage plant and farmed 27 separate parcels of land, including 130 acres of apple orchards. Travers describes his father's farming practices, and the use of pesticides, which included lead, sulphur and oil sprayed with hand guns. He also discusses the various ethnic groups who have worked in valley agriculture during the twentieth century. After Travers's father and mother died he continued apple orchard farming, eventually farming 250 acres.
In his narration he describes “old style” apple storage when the fruit was packed in wooden crates and stored in the shade in redwood groves. This practice was replaced in the 1930s when orchardists began storing apples in cold packing sheds. During this period, researchers at UC Davis and elsewhere attempted to find ways to maintain the quality of the apples in storage over an extended period. Experiments focused on temperature control and the sealing of fruit in poly liners. In 1935 several Watsonville growers stored 20,000 boxes of Newtown Pippins in poly liners at forty degrees but this commercial test failed to prevent spoilage.
In 1956 Ray Travers was the first apple grower on the West Coast to introduce controlled atmosphere storage for apples, a technique originally pioneered in England. This was a sophisticated, scientifically-based development in preserving apples, which extended their storage life by four to six months beyond what had been possible in cold storage and eliminated browning and rotting.
The Agricultural Research Department of the Gerber Products Company, purveyor of baby food, wanted to retain the peak quality of apples during a long period of processing and was interested in finding a storage method which would achieve this. The company worked with Travers and in 1956 they stored 18,000 boxes of Newtown Pippins in a gas-tight room in Travers's Watsonville cold storage house. This new technique required having a low temperature in the storage room, and maintaining a low oxygen and high carbon-dioxide content in the atmosphere. As they experimented with this new kind of commercial storage, they established the optimum temperatures and gas concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which eliminated internal flesh browning, and retained the nutritional value of the apples over an extended period. Subsequently, this technique has become standard in the industry.
Travers's narration also includes his overview of apple farming, the introduction of dwarf apple tree varieties, and the vicissitudes and economics of farming in the 1970s-- the need for substantial capital investment, the high price of land, and the nature of the highly competitive agricultural market. His views on the growing suburbanization of the Pajaro Valley are prescient in describing the real estate trends in California where agricultural lands are at risk, being bought up for housing developments.