Just before Christmastime last year, something other than celery began cropping up in a farm on Bristol Road in East Ventura. The manager of the land, local Hank Laubacher, whose family has farmed in Ventura and Oxnard since 1908, had never seen anything like it.

“Your guess is as good as mine why those are showing up there,” Laubacher says. “It’s a mystery.”

And maybe it’s art.

A new kind of rural, raw art for East Ventura, where suburban homes cluster around shopping malls, edged by fields of strawberries, pumpkins and lettuce. Along the dilapidated barbed wire surrounding the celery field on Bristol Road, about 75 shoes —stilettos, snow boots, slippers — sit on the metal fence posts. A red pump tilts its toe toward the sky and points its heel toward the Oxnard horizon, where the city’s two lonely skyscrapers protrude through the haze. The eight wheels belonging to a pair of upside-down Blade Runner roller blades spin precariously in the wind. A collection of shiny purple, black platform and $40 Rainbow flip-flops flap against their respective fence posts as cars whiz past on the two lane road. Drivers turn their heads to glance at the footwear sans feet along the otherwise humdrum street.

shoes2Laubacher first noticed the shoes about three months ago, when there wasn’t much else going on at the field, besides celery growing.

“It started as just a few, and then boom, all the sudden almost every pole had a shoe on it. I’ve got no idea who’s putting them there or why they’re doing it, but it is kind of interesting.”

According to Laubacher, field hands will sometimes hang their soiled, wet boots and gloves on fence posts to dry. He thinks the present shoe situation may have started when someone saw a few worker’s boots and gloves out on “display” and decided to add to the collection.

“I don’t know if it’s kids messing around to look cool, or what, but it is kind of a unique art form,” he says.

While checking on the celery Feb. 29, field workers Alejandro and Geraldo, who declined to give their last names, say they have no idea where the zapatos muchos came from.

Alejandro says the shoes were interesante but wasn’t sure what to make of them, besides a joke.

“Es arte?” I ask.

Alejandro just laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

He says the shoes have been there for awhile, but the field workers most likely didn’t put them there.

Laubacher agrees. “I don’t think it’s [the field workers] that did it because there hadn’t been that much going on over there until recently. It was really low key over there while the crop was growing.

“They just kind of crack up about it,” says Laubacher of the field workers. “Alejandro and Geraldo were laughing about it.”

Riding by on a bicycle, Christine Oregon of Oxnard says she had never seen the shoes before, but thought they might be a collection for charity.

“I thought maybe it was a drop-off for shoes so people could pick them up if they need some, because some of them look like they’re in good condition,” she says. Some of the shoes seem unworn, although weeks of rain and sun have weathered the collection.

“We were just riding along here and I said, ‘Look at that! That’s a cool idea.’ ”

A spokeswoman for Ventura Artists Union Gallery, a group made up of a wide variety of local artists, also knew nothing about the shoes on Bristol Road.

“That’s the first I’ve heard about it,” says Nina Rubin, the group’s public relations director, after being told of the outdoor “exhibit.”

After hearing about the shoes, Rubin, who lives in East Ventura, decided to take a look at them herself.

“This really, really freaking weird!” Rubin says as she drives by the collection. “Wow. The mystery of the shoes. It’s kind of cool, but extremely strange.”

As Rubin noticed each high heel, snow shoe and glove, she says she thought the “exhibit” was art.

“My guess is that somebody did it as an art project,” she says. “I could have donated shoes to this.”shoes3

None of the Laubachers has any idea where the shoes came from, Hank Laubacher says. Now in its fifth generation of ownership, Laubacher Farms, Inc., was founded by

Benjamin Daniel Laubacher and became incorporated in 1978. It is now owned and operated by siblings Steve, Hank, Karen, Jane and Donnie Laubacher.

The family manages land in the Oxnard Plain, Ventura, Santa Paula, Camarillo and Fillmore, practicing “custom farming,” which means they use their machines and equipment to farm land that the owners cannot farm themselves.

Their main crops are celery, mixed lettuce, cilantro, cabbage, bell peppers, strawberries, lima beans and broccoli — and they have never had a crop of shoes spring up on a field before, Laubacher says.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen that. A lot of times, I’ve seen workers hang a shoe that’s given out up there, or some yellow rain gear to dry, and sometimes they forget about it. I did see a pair of gloves on the fence that could have been from our guys.”

In fact, there are four heavy-duty working gloves stuck to the posts, waving slightly in the wind. Laubacher said he has no problem with the shoes being stuck on the fence posts and doesn’t plan to remove them.

Whether the shoes are the result of several neighborhood artists, who may or may not know each other, or one person with a lot of shoes, the collection seems to beg to be looked at as art.

A multicolored confetti garland has been wrapped around the eastern portion of the fence, and the soles of several shoes have been drawn or written on. “We heart you” has been scrawled across the bottom of a New Balance running shoe. A pair of puffy basketball shoes has been spraypainted gold.

Interestingly, many of the shoes are in children’s sizes. A child’s black Ugg boot sits upside down on a post. A few shoes away, a five-inch-long pink beaded slipper rests on a fence barb. Kid’s sized bright blue crocs and pink and purple snow boots, complete with fake fur inside, are propped up next to each other on the fence.

The variety of shoes — on the little stretch of fence just east of the railroad tracks on Bristol Road — is enormous and includes a red wedge, a white pointed high heel, a green four-inch stiletto, a pair of pink slip-ons, heavy-duty rain boots, a man’s leather dress shoe, a brown ankle boot and a silver ballet slipper. In the last month or so, some of the shoes on the fence posts have gone missing, Laubacher says.

“A lot of them have disappeared. I don’t know if people are taking them to use or what. You got me.”

Whether a charitable act, an artistic venture or a spontaneous assimilation, no one knows for certain. But Laubacher isn’t convinced it’s anyone local who’s been replacing feet with fence posts at the Bristol field.

“It’s aliens that are doing it, that’s my guess,” he jokes.