The floating Savior heard the pleas. Cool weather arrived Friday afternoon like a soothing daydream—a bit of Lompoc right here in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley.After the shipping lanes from Great Britain and France were blockaded by the Germans in WWI, the US horticultural seed industry (vegetable, flower and herb seed) struggled to find new sources for these traditional crops from Northern Europe, the former home of most 19th century immigrants. In 1915, agriculture still overwhelmingly dominated American trade and labor. A collapse of food related industries would rival the horrific disaster of ships lost at sea. My grandfather, George J. Ball, was part of this movement, as was W. Atlee Burpee, the founder of our present company.
With its unique transverse coastal mountain ranges, the Lompoc valley gets breezes of cool, moist air directly off the ocean with no interference by north-south mountain formations. Reaching almost 20 miles inland, the region enjoys the same weather as the deck of a cruise ship. This weird combination of steady wind, morning fog, no rain, low temperatures and California sun by noon, earned Lompoc the status of sacred, uninhabited space from the Chumash. They would periodically hike across the mountains from their outlying settlements to this magical place to worship their gods.
The Lompoc Valley is a black hole of southern California weather: no heat, no dry air, no stillness, no bustling crowds, and—with no windward mountains—little rain at any time of year. A “perfect storm” for seed production and, in fact, vastly superior to Europe due to this unusual weather combined with ample farmland. In fact, there is no place like it in the world. Imagine a cool England that is also both sunny and dry.
Early settlers from the east and midwest included many members of temperance unions who farmed or grazed livestock. Later settlers shunned the area’s cool climate and aloof townsfolk. Not so the Bodgers and Burpees, seed breeders and producers who said, “Eureka!” Their colorful annual flower fields gave the area its longstanding nickname, “The Valley of the Flowers”. Seedsmen have flocked to Lompoc from around the world for almost a hundred years. To this day, local farmers fashion all sorts of large threshers, “clippers” and enormous vacuum machines to gently extract dry flower heads of zinnias, marigolds, lobelia, alyssum, column stock and hundreds of other annuals, biennials and perennials. They mount them on tractors and slowly drive them through the fields. They have built dozens of barns to mill, clean, sort, grade and bag the seed. Lately, a valley in Peru entered the game, with an ability to supply a few classes of seed during our winter months—good for backup and insurance against disease or extreme weather.
Thus, the US and Canada avoided the embargo and general instability of war-torn Northern Europe, hitherto the horticultural capital of the world. Interestingly, Japanese breeders also took advantage of the WWI blockade, supplying highly specialized vegetable and flower seeds to the US market. However, they were stopped in WWII, and recovered only by further specializations. From the 1980s onward, Europe, Japan, Korea and Taiwan recovered much of their trade, especially as worldwide markets opened. Nevertheless, seed from Lompoc’s “mother plants” are so superior, European and Japanese seed companies still produce crops there.
Little more than fifty years ago, Basque immigrants herded sheep on the hills outside town. Diatomaceous earth mines were built in the mountains. The infamous Federal Penitentiary remains—now minimum-security—and nearby Vandenberg AFB still employs hundreds from the town. There is a ring of subdivisions owned by commuters working in “no growth” Santa Barbara, 45 miles to the south. Laotian immigrants started moving to Lompoc in the 90s.
In late autumn, the farmers harvest the best broccoli in the world; the freshly cut stalks and heads have an unsurpassed succulence and sweetness. Locals enjoy heavenly lunchtime feasts of it, steamed and drizzled with melted butter and freshly squeezed lemon juice. When I used to go out on business, I would join these happy repasts. We would take the phone off the hook.