Anne Farbstein, our Produce Category Manager, is always on the hunt for the best produce to offer our customers. Much of our organic produce is supplied by Four Seasons, a produce wholesaler based out of Ephrata, PA. Anne was recently given the opportunity to tour a handful of the farms that supply Four Seasons. Starting in Bakersfield, CA, Anne traveled for 6 days throughout the Central and Salinas Valleys to visit Cal-Organic, Family Tree Farms, Dole, Driscoll’s, and Lakeside Organics, among others. We asked Anne to share her incredible experience with our team and customers:
Tell us about the growers.
Everywhere we went we were welcomed with enthusiasm and respect. The growers are passionate about their stewardship of the land and sustainable growing practices.
During our field tours we observed planting, harvesting and field packing, which rapidly dispelled the idea that these jobs require “unskilled” labor. Most of the individuals on the harvest crews have 10-20 + years of experience which they call upon constantly while making real-time decisions about what is suitable for harvest and how it should be sized, graded, and packed. Nearly every operation we toured employs their own workers rather than utilizing labor contractors, and pays employees well above minimum wage, including benefits.
What happens after the produce leaves the field?
At the warehouse facilities, we saw crops arriving from the field to be cleaned, cooled, processed, packed, and shipped. We discussed a wide variety of topics: growing practices, food safety and handling standards, “cut to cool” times to maximize freshness and flavor, inspection and quality control, storage, order picking and loading, and transportation procedures.
Which tour was your favorite?
Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, CA. Ocean Mist is the largest grower of fresh artichokes in the US. With growing areas strategically located in regions with suitable micro-climates, Ocean Mist can farm a full line of premium artichokes and fresh vegetables year-round. Amazingly, much of their state-of-the-art equipment (including huge hydro and vacuum coolers and ice injection chambers) follows the harvest, being regularly broken down, transported on large flatbed trailers, and reassembled at the next growing region from Castroville straight through to Mexico.
Which tour was most unique?
The R&D Center of Family Tree Farms. The Jackson family works with botanists and scientists from around the world to experiment with hundreds of stone fruit varieties and hybrids. These are evaluated for pest and disease resistance, yield, size, appearance, holding quality, etc. After several seasons in the test orchard, any selections that the R&D director has determined are worthy of consideration for production are blindly sampled and evaluated.
What was your takeaway?
This trip gave me the opportunity to see first-hand where most of the food grown in the US comes from, and to meet the people growing it. I have a much better understanding now of why there are gaps in availability or opportunities for specific quality issues and price fluctuations. While I was hugely impressed with every farm I saw, this experience reinforced my awareness of how far away they truly are. It left me with an even stronger commitment to buy locally grown produce for our stores for as much of the year as possible.