Not that kind of ‘oyster’: Watsonville Testicle Festival fundraises for youth in agriculture
The 15th annual Testicle Festival’s main attraction is freshly fried Rocky Mountain oysters, aka bull testicles. The family-friendly barbecue raises money for scholarships awarded to youth entering careers in agriculture. As the farming population ages across America, event organizers say attracting new agriculturists is vital.
The dish often known as Rocky Mountain oysters hides behind many names. In the ranching communities where it’s eaten, it might be called calf fries, prairie oysters, cowboy caviar or huevos del toro. After a few plates washed down with a few beers, one might hear more lewd noms de plume like Montana tendergroins, dusted nuts and swinging beef. But at the Watsonville Testicle Festival, there’s no bull.
Fried bull testicles are the main draw at this fundraising barbecue, which took place for its 15th year on a Saturday afternoon in late August. It was an opportunity for the whole family to hang loose; almost 200 people gathered at the Estrada Deer Camp to enjoy unlimited plates of this unusual delicacy, carefully prepared by a team of volunteers headed by Loretta Estrada, the matriarch of the Estrada family. She and her husband, Frank, founded the camp 58 years ago as a community gathering place under a cathedral-like grove of redwood trees on their ranch just outside of Watsonville.
People certainly do go nuts for them. “There’s one gentleman tonight who’s had at least 12 plates,” Loretta claims.
While there are fans in attendance, the main purpose of the Testicle Festival is to raise funds for the Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. Cow-pie bingo, a raffle, a silent auction and a live auction encourage guests to reach for their coin purses. The $75 ticket included a grilled chicken dinner and unlimited beer and wine.
With an apron on and a cold beer in one hand, 80-year-old Loretta Estrada describes how she and her team prepped the “oysters,” removed from their original owners less than 72 hours earlier and donated by Watsonville butcher Freedom Meat Lockers. After the skins are removed, the testicles are soaked in milk seasoned with salt and garlic for a day or two, then sliced, dredged in flour and deep-fried. What ends up on the plate is similar in both appearance and texture to fried calamari. Which is to say, it ain’t half bad, especially dunked in a variety of homemade dipping sauces.
All of the money raised will help fund scholarships for youth pursuing a career in agriculture. As the average age of a U.S. farmer approaches 60, encouraging a new generation to enter the industry is vital to the future of farming in America, explains committee chair CJ Miller. Miller was a scholarship recipient and now, at 31 years old, works for a berry grower in Santa Cruz County. “Reinvigorating people to not just return to the farm,” he says, “but return to agriculture or become new agriculturists is what this is about.”
The local agriculture industry faces many of the same challenges as the rest of the state, he says, like difficulty finding workers, and the cost of and access to water. Plus, there are additional factors that make farming in Santa Cruz County particularly difficult, including the high cost of land, the limited availability of land suitable for agriculture and a housing crisis. “We’re a small county. There are only a certain number of producible square miles. And that’s something so unique,” he says as he gestures up toward the sunlight-streaked canopy of the festival space. “We’re standing in a beautiful redwood grove on the side of a mountain — but you wouldn’t be able to grow strawberries here, just because of photosynthesis.”
For Zachary Estrada, Loretta’s 24-year-old grandson and the sixth generation to ranch in Santa Cruz County, the pull of his family’s legacy was too strong to resist. “I felt like I owed it to my ancestors,” he says. “They’re the ones that got this place for us, and I’m very fortunate. And I just felt obligated to carry it on, because nobody else in the family is interested.”
Estrada Grassfed Beef is a traditional cow calf operation with more than a hundred cows, and the beef he produces is grass-fed and all-natural. Zachary explains that his cows roam the ranch and a couple other nearby ranches that he leases. The cows are bred by bulls and produce one calf a year, which stays with the mother for several months before it’s sold for meat.
“That’s the income that keeps the operation going,” Zachary says, although he admits it’s hard to make ends meet. He also works full time as a firefighter in Santa Clara County and struggles against increased costs in everything from insurance to diesel fuel. During drought years, he also has to purchase hay to feed the cows when there isn’t enough grass to nourish them. Although the price of meat has increased — up from $7.59 per pound earlier this year to $8.30 for choice beef, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — he says finances are still tight: “In the cow business, there’s just not a big margin in the first place.”
But he says he finds the work rewarding: “You start with a cow, and that cow has a calf, and the end result is a steak on a plate, and somebody enjoying it. It’s nice to see it start-to-finish and produce a product that you know where it came from and it was raised the right way.”
As dinner finished and the sunlight dimmed, someone lit a fire in one of the stone barbecues and laid out graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate for s’mores. The kids, who had been playing on a nearby hillside all day, came in with sticks for roasting. At my table, one gray-haired attendant said that he remembered sliding down that hill when he was young, and someone else opened a bottle of homemade wine to share with friends and strangers. While the agriculture industry has changed considerably in Santa Cruz County over the past few decades, at the Testicle Festival, its community spirit endures.
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