Don Curlee: Gourd sector tiny but devoted
"Minor crops" is a recognized category that covers some agricultural production, but California's gourd crop calls for an even smaller niche — let's say minute, even petite.
Grower Gary Clausen's half-acre of gourds on his small farm in Planada in Merced County qualifies him as a regular agricultural producer. And his income from the sale of the dried crop to artists, decorators and crafters convinces him that the often-denigrated dried cucurbit he grows can be beautiful.
The reduced size of his operation fits with his retirement from the agriculture department of Merced College. Its labor and upkeep demands are in scale with his age and physical condition, which includes a touch of Parkinson's disease. He's aware that gourds can be big business, but he has no desire to go there.
On the other hand, Welburn Farms in Fallbrook has gone there, and for years has supplied as many as 375,000 hard-shell gourds annually for an established clientele that anxiously anticipates each new crop. The Welburn operation occupies 65 of San Diego County's most attractive acres.
The Leiser Family Farm in Knights Landing in Sutter County has been another of California's major gourd producers for 15 years, supplying more than 30 types of the hard-shelled, melon-like vessels. The Leisers ship their annual harvest to buyers in a dozen countries or more. One variety they grow features such a long, skinny neck that it can't be shipped.
Another grower in Silicon Valley, who couples gourds with pumpkins, supplies artists, crafters and other hobbyists year-round. Among his most enthusiastic customers are the members of the Calabash Patch of the American Gourd Society (AGS).
Most of those who paint, sculpt and transform the dried gourds into permanent decorative and usable pieces are members of the AGS or one of its local "patches." California is home to 20 patches, with three to 50 members in each group. At monthly meetings, members display and discuss the results of their decorating talents.
Gary Clausen has found a niche within the gourd niche. He converts many of the larger globes to masks. His wife enjoys painting and decorating them, some of which mimic well-known personalities. He lines them with smooth fabric, and pads them with soft Styrofoam to make them fit snugly and hold comfortably, allowing wearers comfort, easy breathing and good vision.
At a recent meeting in neighboring Le Grand about a dozen community leaders donned Clausen's brightly painted masks and sat as a tribunal to rule against high-speed rail. Both Planada and Le Grand and farmland surrounding both are bisected by the proposed rail line.
The audience at the tribunal could only guess who the disguised luminaries were until the masks were removed one by one. It was an impressive bit of drama that underscored the community opposition to construction of the rail line, and left no doubt where the masked participants stood on the issue.
While Clausen places most of his emphasis on growing gourds that will serve as masks once they are dried, deseeded, scrubbed and polished, others produce a wider line of the vegetable with the tough rind. Artists and hobbyists are often challenged by the unpredictable shapes the gourds assume as they grow.
"Seeing" an animal or some other object in the gourd's natural shape encourages them to exaggerate or highlight characteristics with further embellishment, often creating a one-of-a-kind decorative piece.
Clausen knows of only one variety of gourd considered by most gourd lovers — but not all — as edible. One gourd producer offers a tea made from the vegetable. In spite of limited appeal as a food or beverage, gourds have served many civilizations as utensils, musical instruments, decorations or just curios.
He hopes his technique with masks can expand and extend the life and reputation of this agricultural wonder and provide a little good-hearted fun in the process.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org