The Holtville Carrot Festival, held every February in California’s Imperial Valley, celebrates the area’s farm traditions.
More than 103 years ago, a hardy group of pioneers found their way to the desert of California’s Imperial Valley where they helped settle a new imperial irrigation district off the Colorado River. From the sand and silt of the desert they coaxed fields of broccoli, carrots, lettuce and onions.
A century later that tradition endures. With four growing seasons a year, we can harvest two vegetable crops in the mild winter and turn around for a quick season of wheat or two swaths of alfalfa in the same year. Carrots are our specialty. Holtville has gained fame as “Carrot Capital of the World” and we celebrate that heritage annually at the Holtville Carrot Festival and Parade.
It’s an exciting time of the year when everyone gets out their best antiques to celebrate. A 95-year-old John Deere gas engine provides power to crank an ice cream freezer. Decades-old horse-drawn farm wagons alternate with parade floats and antique cars. In between are tractors of every vintage. School bands practice in the line-up as horses and riders wait nearby.
A large forklift bearing two enormous pallets leads the procession. On the pallets is an artful arrangement showcasing the valley’s bounty: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. A school band, the honor guard and a few floats pass, followed by the businesslike beat of a 2-cylinder John Deere tractor representing the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources Desert Research and Extension Center, El Centro. The 1936 John Deere Model D, a parade regular since its restoration in 1990, is at the head of the antique tractor contingent. Since much of our farming is done by International Harvester and Farmall tractors, most local John Deere collectors have to “import” collectibles!
Family shares hobby
A 1953 Massey-Harris Model 44 pulls the UC “Farm Smart” float alongside the Johnny Popper. Both tractors are owned by Nancy Caywood, extension educational outreach coordinator. She and her family restored the Massey-Harris tractor as a family project.
It began when her father saw the tractor advertised for sale a couple of years ago. Since Nancy was born in 1953, and she loves tractors, he asked if she wanted to look at this particular tractor. All it needed was a new carburetor, some rewiring and a few cosmetic touch-ups.
The answer was a resounding “yes,” followed by two months of work. Nancy and her mother scraped off old paint. Her husband and son helped repaint the relic. Her dad made mechanical repairs and tracked down replacement parts. Even the grandkids got involved, making repairs of their own.
Heritage of pride
Ernie Strahm and his sons also showcase antique tractors in the parade. Emigrating from Switzerland in the 1930s, the Strahm family was among the first dairy farmers in the Imperial Valley. That spawned a four-generation heritage of alfalfa growers represented in the parade by Ernie’s collection of John Deere sickle mower attachments.
As the farm operation grew, the business expanded to vegetable production. Eventually, Ernie Strahm & Sons bought out several small area farms. When they took over the operations, it was not unusual to find an old tractor parked out back. “I just couldn’t watch them rust away,” Ernie says. He began to gather up the tractors and restore them with the help of his kids and grandkids. Each year, family members drive antique tractors in the Carrot Festival parade and display them afterward at the county fairgrounds.
Ernie still has his dad’s 1949 Farmall Model A, which he restored to running condition in January 1999. It is not the oldest piece in his collection though. A 1935 Farmall F-12 holds that honor. A local tractor, it features an unusual backhoe attachment uniquely well suited to working the valley’s clay-and-sand mixture.
The hard clay and sand found in the Imperial Valley requires unusually large plows. In the early 1900s, the Colorado River flooded the valley, bringing in silt and sand. The silt trapped the sand in layers as it flooded. When the water receded, the residue hardened. “It’s still a headache trying to get plows to dig deep enough to get through that,” Ernie says.
A pair of John Deere tractors – a 1948 Model B and a 1960 Model 530 – cap off Ernie’s collection. When he’s not driving a tractor, Ernie takes his grandkids through the parade in a 1941 Ford farm truck pulling a trailer display consisting of a 1941 John Deere Model L and 1949 Farmall Cub.
After a few more school bands and a couple of floats, the parade closes with the flashing lights and sirens of our fire department. Drivers line up the antique tractors and cars on the streets surrounding the town square, and local people have the opportunity to visit with collectors and learn about these early classics. The array of vintage vehicles creates a unique atmosphere; it’s almost like stepping back in time.
The beautiful thing about our community is that restoring tractors isn’t just a pastime or a hobby. In many cases, it’s about family coming together to preserve and celebrate our farming heritage. These are not just stories that Granddad talked about: They are things we did with Granddad and times we shared as a family. When the valley comes together at the Carrot Festival, we are all family and we all share in the harvest of good times. If you get the chance, come join us at the Holtville Carrot Festival! FC
For more information: The 2011 Carrot Festival will be held Feb. 5-14. Holtville Chamber of Commerce, (760) 356-2923; e-mail
Jenn Allen was born in the Imperial Valley of southern California and has spent most of her life on the farm. Her love for antique tractors is the result of stories her mother told her of a 1938 Oliver 80 RC that she fondly remembers as “old mangy.” E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .