A tour of California’s farm belt

A tour of California’s farm belt

Four Seasons Produce is a leader in both conventional and organic produce distribution. For the last 17 years, their vice president of business development, Wendell Hahn, has brought groups of 10 to 15 people to California’s Central Valley region as an opportunity for their customers to see and talk to growers. I was honored to represent the East End Food Co-op this year on a five-day tour that spanned 200 miles and covered 10 farms and facilities from Bakersfield to Monterey, plus a quick stop at King’s Canyon and Pebble Beach.

California supplies almost half of our nation’s produce, and I spent a lot of time on the tour observing the differences between organic versus conventional farming. I heard everything from, “doesn’t all organic food have to be flown in from Chile” to “only conventional farming can feed the world.” Working at the East End Food Co-op, I focus on local and organically-grown produce. It’s easy to forget these values aren’t upheld by a majority of Americans. I am used to working directly with our farmers, many of whom manage a few diverse acres of farmland. One day in California, as I stood among thousands of acres of grapes at the Dulcich family “small operation” farm, I knew my understanding of industrial agriculture was about to be turned on its head.

At Lakeside Organics, a one thousand acre operation in the Salinas Valley, we stood in front of a field of organic spinach and heard from their pest manager about his program of reintroducing gallons of ladybugs into their fields and companion planting crops with alyssum to attract beneficial native flies. Lakeside Organics was visibly restoring the land.

Family Tree Farm, on the other hand, extolled the virtues of conventional farming. They even teach a three-day course that, among other things, preaches this ideology. Family Tree owns and leases property in several states around the country and more recently has taken up land acquisition in Mexico and Peru for blueberry production. While they run their tens of thousands of mainly conventional fruit orchards, they believe strongly that running a tractor once a season to spray-kill weeds is far superior to the organic methodology of running tractors every other week with weeding attachments.

I contemplated the tradeoffs between burning diesel and spraying herbicides. Huge entities farm much of California’s produce using conventional techniques. Large organic farms approach production in the same way as conventional operations, just with different inputs at higher frequency rates. I can start to appreciate why some Americans aren’t clear about the value of organic produce, given the issues with production at this scale.

What all the farmers shared, whether their approach was conventional or organic, is their care and passion for their operations and what they grow. Cut-to-cool times (the amount of time between harvest and refrigeration) are taken very seriously, as is minimizing how many hands touch the produce before it gets to the consumer.

Dole’s celery operation, for instance, is completely packaged in cases in their fields. Two people touch the celery and it is guaranteed in a cooler within four hours. These folks believe in their products and the reality is that we haven’t figured out a scalable alternative to growing produce in this particular semi-arid part of the country.

Despite some of the hesitation I heard on my tour of California, the reality is there is growing interest in organics by the American consumer, and they demand a wide selection of fruits and vegetables all year long. If 52 million organic strawberry plants per year in one small section of Driscoll’s organic strawberry fields can’t come close to keeping up with demand, there’s a larger issue at play. We can either dramatically alter our food culture or look to entrepreneurial farmers to figure out ways of meeting our demands.

As some of these thoughts begin to clarify, I realize I’m standing in a 20,000 square-foot cooler at 11 am. It’s 34 degrees, and I’m surrounded by 6 million pounds of processed vegetables, mostly cut spinach and spring mix, watching a robot arm pack 180 boxes of salad per minute. What is even crazier is that 85% of what I’m seeing in this warehouse will be on a truck headed out of California by 2 am. So, while I know it won’t be long until I buy another one—pound box of Olivia’s Organic spring mix, boy am I excited to buy my next head of local, organically grown lettuce that only traveled an hour from a small-operation farm outside of Pittsburgh to my co-op.

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