Lessons Learned in the “Salad Bowl of America”
At the end of July, we went to the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) annual produce conference in Monterey, California. This is the largest produce conference in the country and had 2,000+ suppliers, distributors, and food service professionals in attendance this year. As guests of NPC, our produce cooperative, we were invited to tour fields and processing facilities within the Salinas Valley to better understand how the product gets from the field to our restaurants. The dominant crops in the Salinas Valley are lettuce, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, and artichokes. The 275,000+ acres of irrigated land is responsible for generating approximately 70% of the US lettuce production, of which iceberg is king. The valley is about 90 miles long and sits between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges, and due to its proximity to Monterey Bay and the coast of the Pacific, the climate stays relatively cool and mild for most of the year.
While all of the farmers that we met spoke of the challenges and opportunities of growing specific crops, many expressed concerns over the future of the industry.
On water…Most produce is picked and packaged in the field. It’s then chilled and checked for quality at a facility before being sent to distributors on the same day. Throughout the process, there is a tremendous amount of water being used. Food processors use even more water to clean the product, i.e. triple-washed lettuce. Seven years ago, the produce industry in Salinas Valley was challenged to find a reliable water source due to the droughts and Oceanic encroachment on the local reservoir. They turned to recycled water. Not only is it more plentiful than well-water, less wasteful, but also has a lower salinity which produces healthier plants. After harvest, the land is tilled and then planted with a different crop, which helps ward off pests and maintain the quality of the soil.
On the off-season…Many processing facilities pack up all their equipment and move to Yuma, AZ with most of their staff, from about November to March, when the conditions in the Salinas Valley are too cold for growing. This requires an amazing amount of planning and resources. The facilities can be broken down and reassembled thousands of miles away in a matter of 3-4 days. The downtime in Salinas allows for the plants to be thoroughly cleaning and repairs to be done at the facilities while they’re not in use.
On Safety… Supervisors walk the fields several times a day to inspect quality and identify any signs of infestation. Areas where product appears to be effected are quarantined to prevent more of the crop from being effected. Additionally, the crops are rotated after harvest to allow the soil to replenish nutrients and reduce the presence of specific pests. At Foxy Strawberries, they rarely use pesticides because of the expense; they put tents over infested plants and vacuum up the bugs. Food processors like Green Gate and Taylor farms sterlize and monitor their equipment hourly to ensure any contaminants (i.e. bird droppings) are minimized and prevented from spreading possible disease.
On Harvesting… At Boggiato Farms we learned that Brussels sprouts take a long time to grow. Product picked this week was started from in seed in January and then transplanted in March. The leaves are removed by hand and the stalks are pushed through a machine one at a time to efficiently remove the sprouts. The sprouts then get sent to another machine where they are sized and packaged. Harvesting romaine hearts leaves a huge amount of waste since all the green outer leaves are not used. All of this gets tilled into the ground, adding the nutrients back into the soil. The time it takes from seed to harvest is about 65 days. At Monterey Mushrooms we learned that mushrooms double in size every day. Also, the “dirt” on commercial mushrooms is actually sterilized peat. It only takes four days to grow a portabella mushroom but weeks to generate the compost (mostly from wheat).
On labor… We repeatedly heard about the labor shortage. Most of the farmers are paying up to 22% more for labor than they were in 2015. The smaller farmers are only able to recruit locally, which is a challenge. They pay $20/hr + benefit if anyone is looking for a new job. The larger farms are taking part in the H2A visa program which allows them to select applicants from Mexico to work here in the US. The employees work for the farmers for 11 months and then return to Mexico for a month before starting the process again. They work 40 hrs per week and travel from Salinas Valley to Yuma when the field conditions change in the fall. The growers pay for transportation, housing, food, and medical needs. The expense of these services and pay equates to $22/hr.
With the political climate changing, an aging population of those willing to work in produce fields, and the limited willingness of Americans to pay more for their food, growers are very concerned about the future (15+ years) of the US produce industry. From those we spoke with, the options are limited to greater automation or outsourcing production. The concerns with automation are high upfront cost, short term loss in efficiency and fewer eyes and hands inspecting the quality. Outsourcing would result in less transparency or oversight on quality, fair labor practices, and food safety.
What’s in it for Hai?
Short Term: We made connections with purveyors selling labor-saving products that might be useful for Loro, a supplier of finger limes that can guarantee product year-round, and a company we already do business with but could supply us with a greater selection of flowers and micro-veggies.
Long Term: We met with multiple mushrooms and brussels sprout growers that will develop into our primary and secondary suppliers. We reinforced our commitment to our distributors and encouraged them to work with growers that shared many of our core values: Passion, Collaboration, Evolution and Care & Action.
Having relationships directly with the growers helps us communicate issues, predict shorts, and grow product to meet our specific needs. For example, our Brussels sprout spec is 1.5” in diameter but the industry spec for a small Brussels sprout is 1” and 2” for a medium Brussels sprout. Therefore, we tend to get a product that is too big or too small. By communicating our needs (46,000lb annual usage), consolidating our purchases (last year we had 3 distributors and 7+ growers) and being willing to commit to a purchasing strategy, we can potentially get a grower to produce exactly what we want in the quantities that we need and at a fair price.