From Farm To Table
Have you ever wondered where your produce comes from? We've tracked the entire process, starting at North America's largest organic farm
By Katrina Mather
Unless you've got a green thumb and a big backyard—or you live in a warm region that offers year-round farmers' markets—chances are you buy a lot of your fruits and vegetables at the local food store, especially in the winter. Although your supermarket may be just a few blocks or miles from where you live, the brightly colored lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes in your shopping cart probably came from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
To find out how a farm brings its product to the consumer, we visited Earthbound Farm in Northern California, currently North America's largest grower and shipper of organic produce. You've probably seen its ubiquitous organic bagged salads at a host of stores, from small mom-and-pop shops to Whole Foods. As we discovered, growing and transporting top-quality organic produce to markets all over the country demands an Olympic level of coordination, ingenuity, science, and labor—and a little bit of luck. Here, we track the entire planting, harvesting, packing, and shipping process for one of the most delicate of organic items: baby salad greens. Now you'll know how that bag of organic lettuce and other greens you served for Sunday dinner still managed to be fresh days after you brought it home from the store.
Preparing The Soil
At Earthbound, as at any good organic farm, robust soil is the first step to achieving perfect produce. The soil should be rich in nutrients—not just nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but micronutrients, too—as well as alive with microorganisms that help make the nutrients usable by plants and discourage plant pathogens. To maintain the consistently rich soil ideal for baby greens, Earthbound farmers use several techniques, starting with planting cover crops on the land, primarily during the off-season winter months. Cover crops, including Austrian field peas, bell beans, and vetch (another legume), excel at providing the soil with nitrogen, which is essential for building the chlorophyll in plants. Turning under cover crops while they are still young stimulates biological activity in the soil that wards off disease-causing bacteria and creates a natural fertility unmatched by chemical fertilizers. The right cover crops also help control the growth of weeds by crowding them out so the weeds can't get the sunlight they need to mature.
Workers must combat some weeds by hand, with a cost of about $1,000 per acre versus an estimated $50 per acre a conventional farm spends spraying herbicides. After turning under the cover crops, the farmers at Earthbound till natural compost into the soil, which provides beneficial microorganisms and high-quality organic matter. Earthbound's compost is certified organic and oftentimes includes by-products that would otherwise go to waste, including cotton-plant parts and pelletized feather meal and chicken manure (Earthbound uses no fresh manure, because it can harbor harmful bacteria).
As earthworms, protozoa, and other microorganisms break down organic material into compost, they generate heat, which helps kill unwanted bacteria and seeds that would otherwise grow into weeds. National organic standards require that compost reach a temperature of 131 degrees for at least three days before it's ready for application. Earthbound Farm waits until its compost reaches between 131 and 149 degrees for at least five days before tilling it into the soil.
Planting isn't any less complicated at Earthbound than at any other farm. In the fields around the company's central-California-coast headquarters in San Juan Bautista, preparing the soil beds for seeds involves sophisticated technology. "Laser leveling is used to tilt the beds for optimal drainage, and global positioning devices connected to computers in the tractors ensure that rows [of seeds] are even, which allows for maximally efficient placement of irrigation systems," explains Mark Marino, an Earthbound farmer who has been studying, implementing, and experimenting with organic farming practices for more than 20 years. When the beds are ready for planting, a few weeks after workers have tilled in cover crops or previous crops, a machine plants seeds directly into the soil.
Growing plants for seeds is a business unto itself, and Earthbound obtains much of its seed stock from companies that can supply the thousands of seeds Earthbound needs. When it comes to the farm's popular baby salad greens, Earthbound depends on one of its partners, Mission Organics, to breed and grow many of those seeds, including red romaine, red oak, red leaf, Lolla Rosa, green romaine, and Tango. Using a partner for seed development helps control the quality and consistency of Earthbound Farm's varieties and helps prevent cross-pollination with genetically modified plants.
The farm plants baby greens every four or five days during the spring and summer. "Our seeder seeds 16 rows of baby greens at a time on 80-inch beds around San Juan Bautista," says Marino. "Other locations might have beds half this size. Farmers learn by the school of hard knocks what works best in a particular location, figuring out the ideal amount of space between plants to allow for the right amount of light and air to feed the plants and to reduce the possibility of mildew." Seed spacing within rows varies from one-eighth to one-quarter inch, depending on the seed variety and the season.
Tending The Crops
Once workers sow the seed, the three- to six-week growing cycle begins. During this stretch of time, the greens are very well cared for. "As a farmer, I see these plants as my children," says Marino. "I want to make sure they are properly fed, and I check them regularly to assess how healthy they look." Although soil preparation constitutes a large part of proper feeding, irrigation and "fertigation" are crucial throughout the baby greens' early life. Earthbound uses overhead irrigation for the baby greens in San Juan Bautista. From metered wells and an aquifer, water travels down the rows in aluminum pipes; an injector pulls fish-emulsion fertilizer into the pipes, resulting in plant fertigation. (Fish emulsion is a time-honored organic fertilizer that is an excellent source of nitrogen, the most important plant nutrient.) Earthbound often performs irrigation when the dew point is highest, at 4 or 5 a.m.
Earthbound also protects the well-fed baby greens from weeds and pests—of course, without harmful herbicides or other pesticides. The cover crops and compost help keep weeds at bay, as does the drip irrigation system, which distributes water solely along the plant line, limiting the amount of water elsewhere that would help weeds grow. Still, some weeds do appear, and workers must combat them by tractor and by hand (managers might call on as many as 14 people to pick weeds in several rows), with a reported cost of about $1,000 per acre versus an estimated $50 per acre a conventional farm might spend spraying herbicides. Occasionally, Earthbound also uses a technique called flame weeding in which a propane device sends flames toward newly germinated plants, damaging and eventually killing the pesky weeds.
As for keeping pests away, one of the most important strategies is creating beneficial-insect habitats throughout the fields. At Earthbound, plants such as Queen Anne's lace, bachelor's buttons, buckwheat, and baby's breath—even squash—are planted as borders around the fields to provide nectar and a mating area for beneficial insects, including ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and lacewings. When Earthbound needs more beneficial insects, it purchases them from commercial breeders and releases them into the fields, building up the populations of "beneficials" over time. "Ladybugs eat aphids, which are vectors [organisms that carry pathogens from one host to another] for mold and can put disease into healthy plants," says Marino. Beneficials also eat the eggs of harmful caterpillars as well as thrips, which feed destructively on plant juices. Earthbound Farm dedicates 5 percent of its land to plants whose role is to host beneficial insects. These plants also serve as "trap crops," luring pests away from the commercial crops as an alternative food source.
Another method for controlling plant-endangering insects is rotating crops, which confuses habit-driven pests. In addition to pest management, Earthbound's crop planners take into account the tenets of plant and soil science, commercial demand, and lessons from hard-won experience in devising an elaborate crop schedule. "We rotate from lettuce to spinach or chards or mustards after each crop in order to break the life cycle of pests and to prevent the buildup of diseases," explains Todd Kodet, vice president of supply management. "We also rotate in broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and other row crops, as long as the crop is in a different family." Crop-rotation planners also alternate between plants that feed lightly on the nutrients in the soil, such as lettuces, with plants that need lots of nutrients, such as spinach, to ensure that crops don't deplete the soil.
Depending on the season and the growing area—and how well all the protective methods have worked—baby greens take anywhere from 21 days to 45 days to grow to full maturity. If a crop loses the race against pests, workers till under the affected portion, sometimes even an entire planting, creating a commercial loss but a nutrient gain to the soil.
Picking And Packaging
When the baby greens are ready for harvest, timing and temperature rule the day. And at the perfect moment, the race begins. During the hotter summer months, Earthbound Farm laborers start their day at 3 a.m., harvesting the baby leaves before the temperature reaches 80 degrees, at which point the leaves become too soft to pick. Stan Pura, director of farm operations and one of Earthbound Farm's partners, designed a unique baby-lettuce harvester that picks easily-torn baby greens quickly and consistently. Working in a pattern of overlapping rings, eight people variously direct and drive the machine and put the mechanically picked greens into plastic totes. The harvesting machine has a continuous looping blade that goes through a sharpener with each rotation. After the machine cuts the leaves, it blows them onto a mesh grid that allows small leaves and rocks to fall through.
The leaves must stay in a 38-degree "cold chain" from processing time until consumers purchase the lettuce at stores. Depending on how far the fields are from the processing facility (during March and November, crops may come from Huron, California, two hours south of San Juan Bautista), workers then load the baby leaves onto flatbed or refrigerated trucks, with the goal of getting all the greens refrigerated within an hour of harvest. The leaves must stay in a 38-degree "cold chain" from now until consumers purchase the lettuce at stores to maximize the greens' edible lifespan, which is 21 days from harvest to degradation.
After the trucks arrive from the fields, a quality-assurance specialist checks the appearance of the leaves in the totes and decides whether the produce is acceptable. If it gets the go-ahead, workers send the totes into the processing facility, where they enter one of four organic wash lines. "We process 1.8 million pounds of baby greens each week," says Will Daniels, quality-assurance manager. "The processing plant operates six days a week, with two ten-hour processing shifts and one four-hour sanitation shift per day." More than half of Earthbound Farm's thousand employees work on the production end of the cycle. A central computer precisely controls temperature throughout the facility, and employees wear gloves, smocks, and hairnets and wash their shoes and gloves in sanitizing foot and hand baths anytime they move from one section of the facility or one wash line to another.
An employee at the beginning of each wash line looks through the newly arrived greens for any stray twigs, roots, or bad leaves and separates any leaf clumps. Next, the baby greens head into flumed washes of chilled, lightly chlorinated water, which removes impurities and helps extend the leaves' shelf life. The greens flow into a dewatering shaker and then back into another flume wash twice before landing in centrifugal dryers, which dry the tiny leaves as a salad spinner does. Next, the baby greens go through a hopper and onto the scales, where machines automatically divide them into quantities ranging from 4 ounces to 4 pounds. "There are approximately 120 different package sizes, and the machine can process approximately 30 to 60 bags a minute," says Daniels. Total travel time from the inspection belt to the bag: 25 minutes.
The plastic bags the greens go into vary in permeability depending on the respiration needs of the particular leaves (yes, the farmers have considered even the thickness of the bags). For instance, spinach is a high respirator, needing lots of oxygen, so the spinach bags are more permeable than the bags used for other greens. Every half hour, five quality-control specialists take samples from processing lines to check such characteristics as the product quality and temperature and the amount of air in the bags. Tucked into their packages, the baby greens move to a storage area where they await pickup. Earthbound stores salad greens at their favored 38 degrees, but the processing facility also has four off-temperature storage areas for produce that stores better at warmer temperatures, such as potatoes and tomatoes, which prefer 55 degrees.
If a load of produce is at risk of being delivered to stores too late to have a reasonable shelf life, it's given to families in need or is tilled back into the soil. Off To The Stores
Contracted carriers, who drive their refrigerated trucks right up to the processing facility's 19 docks, take care of the majority—some 85 percent—of the delivery of Earthbound Farm produce. Earthbound Farm requires that carriers make pickup appointments at least 12 hours in advance and aims for waiting salads to leave the facility within two days of when they're packaged. However, because the trucks typically make multiple stops in addition to those at Earthbound Farm, they are sometimes delayed along their routes and fail to arrive at their allotted times. If a load of produce is at risk of being delivered too late to have a reasonable shelf life, or when Earthbound has a surplus, the farm makes arrangements to donate the produce to Operation Blessing, a nonprofit organization that provides food and other necessities to financially challenged families. If things really go wrong and produce is still waiting near the end of its edible lifespan, Earthbound tills the produce into the soil.
Although Earthbound requires truckers to keep the produce refrigerated at the appropriate temperature and, if carrying organic produce along with conventional produce, to keep the two rigidly separate, once the produce is in the trucks, Earthbound effectively has little control. The same is true for the distribution centers that are the trucks' destinations. Stores and restaurants schedule delivery or pickup of produce from the distribution centers, typically within a day after the produce arrives. More than 90 percent of Earthbound Farm's organic produce ends up on shelves in retail stores, such as groceries, and multipurpose stores, such as Target and Costco. Traveling to the stores and once there, the baby greens should still be in a 38-degree cold chain. If the distribution process has worked according to plan, Earthbound's greens retain their freshness and flavor for approximately two weeks after they land on store shelves. Of course, shoppers need to check the dates on packages to see if this complicated system has worked.
Bound For Your Table
Once you've picked up your greens at the grocery, how should you store them to retain the freshness numerous Earthbound farmers and employees have worked so hard to attain? Earthbound recommends keeping greens in your refrigerator in the bag they came in. Because the greens undergo thorough washing at the processing facility, it isn't necessary to wash them before serving. After you open a bag of greens, keep any you don't use in the bag and eat them within a couple days for optimum freshness.
The organic baby greens' appearance on your dinner table is the culmination of their odyssey through the danger-riddled dimensions of both natural and technological environments. Their days of growing and traveling over, the greens are finally ready to settle down and be enjoyed. Bon appétit!