Coastal View Produce, located in Gonzales, is one of California’s largest asparagus operations. Although asparagus fields are not the most attractive crop, the CVP land falls idyllically in the Salinas Valley framed by rolling green hills and blue skies. The Salinas Valley, like most valleys, holds nutrient rich soil and the coastal influence produces a moderate climate and extended growing season, making it a prime location for an asparagus crop.
Brian Violini and his brother Kurt inherited the farm land that has been in their family for three generations. They have been farming their whole lives and have grown up to produce the best asparagus we at Earl’s have ever tasted. Asparagus falls on the list of “Clean 15 fruits and vegetables”, meaning that even conventional asparagus crops don’t require excessive use of pesticides and herbicides. Brian says it’s relatively uncommon for him to use agro-chemicals on his conventional crop at all. The only difference between his conventional and organic crop is the occasional use of non-organic fertilizer that he uses at the beginning of the season to jump start the growing process. The lack of aggressive pests, little need for fertilizers, and the minimum amount of watering required make asparagus a relatively low maintenance crop. The majority of the labor needed for asparagus cultivation comes from the frequency of harvesting required. Asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in a single day, making it necessary to harvest regularly- as often as every day during warm spells.
However, the most striking thing about asparagus cultivation at CVP is not the speed and ease at which the harvesters chop the spears using unique asparagus harvesting tools, nor the calculated manner in which they rotate fields to optimize soil fertility and field productivity, but the speed and complexity of their packing facility. Have you ever wondered how your bunch of asparagus gets so uniform in width and length? Does someone sit there with a ruler measuring the diameters of the thin green stalks and bundling the perfect pieces by hand? Unless you’re buying your asparagus from your neighbor’s back yard, chances are they’re not.
The asparagus enters the packing shed from the field in crates where it is rinsed and distributed on a conveyor belt. The stalks are then arranged side by side with their tips aligned and run through a slicer where they are all cut to identical lengths. After they have been sliced they are carefully laid into sizing cups (horizontal half pipe shaped receptacles that fit one spear each). The cups then travel on a conveyor belt through a computerized sizer which takes a picture of each spear, determines its size (small, standard, large, x-large, or jumbo), and communicates to the sizing cup the spear’s measurement. The belt of sizing cups then travels down a line above a series of long metal shoots, each shoot designated for a different sized spear, and when each horizontal cup reaches the appropriate shoot, it turns vertically and deposits the asparagus into the receptacle at the bottom of the shoot. When the collection of spears at the bottom of the shoot reaches one pound, they are bundled with rubber bands and sent down another belt at the end of which they are packed into 11 bunch boxes and sent to the cooler to await distribution.
This incredibly complex process runs almost effortlessly with human hands and machines working in unison. Next time you pick up a bunch of asparagus, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the extensive handling process that bunch has been through before reaching your hands.
The much awaited stone fruit season is here! The Super Rich yellow peach variety from Burkart Orchards is now on Earl’s list. Burkart Orchards is located near Dinuba along the northern border of Tulare County about 4 hours south of San Francisco.
The Super Rich is an early sweet cling variety which means the fruit “clings” to the pit unlike a freestone peach where the fruit falls away easily from the pit. Each week we can look forward to a wide variety of sweet and juicy yellow and white peaches and nectarines arriving at Earl’s.
Look for fruit free from bruising and wrinkles and make sure the area around the stem is not green. We are always saying it is good to build a relationship with your fruit. Pick the peach up and smell the fruit, it should have an aromatic smell. Ask your produce person for a taste so you know exactly what you are getting. We have all bought peaches that just don’t have that flavor you expect when you bite into it. Chances are that it was picked before it was mature.
If you don’t plan to eat all of your peaches at the same time buy only a few and experiment with eating them on different days. Peaches do not ripen much after picking but you can leave your peaches out on the counter for 2-3 days to soften up. We recommend placing them on a cotton or linen towel so the fruit can breathe. Peaches should yield to gentle pressure when they are ripe. At what point does the peach you bought taste perfectly sweet and ripe to you?
You can expect to see yellow nectarines and white peaches by the end of this week. Stay tuned for updates and post your favorite summer stone fruit recipes on our Facebook wall.
Wet weather is never good for cherries. The rain and wind can cause the cherries to split or crack and then that part of the crop is lost. The cherries dangle together in groups of 2 to 6 pieces of fruit and the wind can cause them to bang up against each other, causing bruising on the shoulders of the fruit, the area near the stem. Rain earlier this week down in the Stockton area caused big concerns among growers as they are about to harvest their first California cherries of the season.
One of the methods used to dry out the cherries is to hire a helicopter after the rain to blow air on the cherries, taking about 5 minutes for every acre. This is a very expensive option and can cost up to $500 an hour. Some growers used helicopters this past Tuesday to dry out their orchards in Stockton. We can look forward to receiving Chelan cherries as early as next Monday or Tuesday. Chelans are an early ripening sweet cherry similar to Bings in deep red color and shape. Check back for postings and photos as soon as the Chelans arrive at Earl’s.
Here is a quick update on what is going on in the strawberry world. This is a unique time of year where production is ending in Baja California, and continuing in the Southern California areas such as Camarillo, Oxnard, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria while at the same time transitioning up north to Salinas and Watsonville. The hot temperatures down south will dictate how long the strawberries will continue to be grown in areas like Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. Eventually all the strawberries will be coming out of the cooler central coast areas of Salinas and Watsonville until the end of the season, which is usually November or December depending on the weather, think cold and wet. The hot temperatures down south plus the gap time while transitioning hasn’t affected the supply of strawberries at Earl’s.
If you have ever tried Forbidden Fruit Orchards blueberries from Earl’s you know they are packed with flavor. The good news is that today we received our first shipment of the year of plump, sweet Forbidden blueberries! Over the years Earl’s has had Forbidden blueberries as early as March but the reality is that blueberries are completely dependent on the weather. According to Sandi Davis, the grower, “it was a very cold winter and the blueberries were very late in ripening. The blueberries didn’t get enough heat to ripen up and we barely had enough fruit in March and April to bring to the local farmers market.”
Forbidden Fruit Orchards is located in Lompoc, CA and Sandi has been growing blueberries since 2002. She now has over 14,000 blueberry bushes on her 6 acre property. She protects her blueberries from birds by growing them in hoop houses covered with nets. Her farm is located about 15 miles from the ocean in Pinot Noir country in Northern Santa Barbara County. The soil is very sandy providing excellent drainage and the ability to grow just about anything. Every year the supply and volume is different so don’t miss out while Earl’s has them. Historically Forbidden Fruit will be done shipping blueberries to Earl’s by the 4th of July.
Forbidden Fruit Orchards has a new label this year. The orchard trees at the top, the fresh and clean design and the bright colors were designed to bring people closer to the farm to table concept and to express the intense flavor of the blueberries. Forbidden Fruit will also be launching a new redesigned website this July complete with weekly blogs about blueberries and what is going on in the world of blueberries. We will be sure to update you when the launch is official. In the meantime toss some Forbidden blueberries on your yogurt, mix them in smoothie or pop a handful in your mouth as is. The flavor can’t be beat!
Ataulfo mangos are easy to spot with their vibrant yellow golden color and small kidney shape. The fantastic flavor and absence of stringy fibers are what make this mango so delicious. The flesh is very sweet and creamy with a smooth texture and the pit is very thin which means more delicious fruit to eat. As the Ataulfo becomes ripe the skin turns a deep golden color and begins to wrinkle. Ataulfos are ready to eat when the skin yields to slight pressure. They can be left at room temperature until they are ready to eat. Do not store below 45 degrees because the cold can discolor the flesh. We do not recommend storing them in the refrigerator because the average temperature is around 38 degrees.
Ataulfos are also known as Honey, Manila, Yellow, Baby and Champagne mangos. They are grown in tropical areas all over the world but the Atualfos sold in the United States are primarily from Mexico. The season starts in March in the Southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Towards the end of April, production moves north to the state of Michoacan and continues through mid-May. Next it moves north to the state of Nayarit from mid-May through June. Production wraps up in the state of Sinaloa from June to early September depending on the weather. The heaviest months for production are June and July but the flavor is outstanding right now!
Mangos are much easier to cut than you may have thought. Here is a quick youtube video showing an easy technique that can be applied to any type of mango. Mangos are great in salads, smoothies or out of hand. Please share your favorite mango recipes with us on our Facebook wall.
As the seasons change we are starting to see some of the specialty citrus varieties winding down or ending. Cara Cara navels are done for the year. Blood Oranges, Minneolas and Golden Nugget Mandarins will finish by the end of April. Murcotts will continue for another few weeks and wind down at the beginning of May. Star Ruby grapefruits will continue through the end of April/beginning of May.
If you missed our citrus blog back in February click here for details on all the varieties mentioned above and more. Get them while you still can!
Mexican melon season is just starting up. Earl’s now has sugar baby watermelon and honeydew melons. We can look forward to Cantaloupes coming next week. Melons will continue to come out of Mexico until around Memorial Day, when they will start to come out of the Californian desert. Check back for updates on melon varieties.
A group of us at Earl’s just split a case of California Avocados from the San Diego area. With it being relatively early in the season I wasn’t expecting the “wow factor” we taste with more mature avocados. Boy was I surprised when my first bite was nutty, creamy and rich in flavor. The avocado went perfectly with freshly caught uni over rice and a ponzu dipping sauce giving a delicious umami flavor to the dish.
The California season starts in January/February in San Diego and continues north through Ojai, 1½ hours north of Los Angeles, up through Santa Barbara county and even as far north as Cambria and Cayucos, located a little north of San Luis Obispo and west of Paso Robles on the coast.
As you shop for avocados it is good to be aware of their growing cycles so you are not disappointed with an early crop. The cycle of maturation, no matter where avocados are grown in the world, means the early crop will have low oil content, low flavor and uneven inconsistent ripening. The trees are full of fruit and in order to continue to size and produce, the tree needs to be relieved of their burden to make room for the next more flavorful picking. The oil content will develop as they mature with each picking. For example, Hass avocados from San Diego where the first crop develops will taste the best earliest in the year, think April/May. As the months go on avocados from the central coast and even farther north will develop the high oil content and flavor we expect from a California avocado.
Though there aren’t many Mexican avocados left, this is a good time of year for buyers to be aware that there can be overlap with California avocados. Beware that the Mexican avocado is a very mature piece of fruit and will ripen quickly. Some retailers may still have them out in mixed bins. Be sure to check the stickers or ask your produce person the country of origin. California avocados are less mature right now and will ripen slower and still have great flavor.
We can look forward to the avocados from the San Diego area tasting even better as we get into late April and early May. What is your favorite avocado recipe? Please post them on our Facebook wall.
Quality Packing and Shipping is a family owned growing and packing operation in Stockton, CA. The Bozzano family owns and operates a 54 acre organic cherry orchard and a 45 acre organic olive orchard. Although the trees were planted in 1980 when Jack Bozzano began farming, the orchard is only in its 5th season of organic production. Jack said it was his wife Nancy, who had a long standing interest in healthy and sustainable food systems, that inspired the transition to organic production 8 years ago.
The orchard consists of 6,534 trees; 5,566 Bing, 97 Rainier, and various Black Tartarian, Van, and Larian. Because cherries need to be cross pollinated, each field is primarily comprised of Bing trees interspersed with 12% pollinators. Each of the pollinators are clearly marked with painted trunks so cultivators know not to mix the fruit from those trees in with the harvest from the other varieties. Because the surrounding fields are conventional walnuts, the outer row of cherry trees can not be sold as organic due to the risk of pesticide drift. These trees are marked with white paint to indicate that this fruit cannot be harvested as organic.
Jack has faced several challenges since switching to organic production, namely organic pest management and the cost of farm labor. The largest pestilent threats to the cherries are gophers and weeds. If unchecked, gophers can rapidly destroy an entire orchard by gnawing away at the trees’ roots. In order to ameliorate the threat of gophers Jack houses barn owls, a natural gopher predator, in owl boxes around the orchard. Although a single barn owl can eat as many as 155 gophers per year, they also practice regular disking (a method of tilling the upper layer of soil) in order to disturb the gophers’ habitat and break up their underground tunnels. Aphids pose an additional threat; Jack tried introducing mass amounts of lady bugs to combat aphid infestations, but found this method to be insufficient. Now, in addition to using lady bugs, he uses a mild soapy water to spray on any aphid colonies he encounters in the field. The soapy water technique is effective and a common organic pest management technique, but only if one is diligent about checking trees and catching infestations before they grow too out of hand. Jack pointed out that the biggest increase in cost he has faced is that of the farm labor. He may be saving money on pesticides and his nutrient rich clay loam soil does not require much fertilizer, but organic agricultural techniques require significantly more labor to control pests. Instead of simply mass spraying fields with herbicides and pesticides the soil must be tilled more often and compost and mulch must be applied to reduce pests and weeds.
The majority of the products that are sorted and packed in their facility come directly from the Bozzano orchards. However, Quality does a significant amount of packing and shipping for other local growers, particularly those under 50 acres who are too small to operate their own packing and shipping operations. Patrick, the sales agent at Quality, admitted that one of the most rewarding things about operating a packing facility is being able to give small growers the opportunity to make a living off their land.
Cherries should be stored at 30-32 degrees for optimal longevity, but because colder fruit is more susceptible to pitting and bruising, the fruit is never fully cooled until after it has been run through all of the sorting and packaging equipment. As a result, when the fruit is brought in from the field it goes through an initial round of hydro-cooling using 55 degree well water to bring down the temperature of the fruit before it goes into the packing shed. The Quality Packing shed is a 27,500 square foot facility equipped with all the tools to clean, sort, and pack the cherries and other product they contract. First the cherries are put through the blower which dries the fruit and removes leaves and debris. Next the cherries are hand sorted on a conveyer belt and rotten fruit is removed before the fruit goes through the sizers. The sizers consist of long rollers with a gap that tapers at the top. Smaller fruit falls through the rollers at the top and as the gap between the rollers increases, the larger fruit falls through the rollers farther down the line. Any cherries that are too small to be packed are segregated and sold to maraschino cherry manufactures and the others are moved along conveyor belts according to their size. The fruit then goes through one more quality check before entering the final hydro-cooler. The fruit is then cooled all the way to 32 degrees before being packed into bags or clamshells to avoid condensation.
The farm to table movement elicits images of quaint family farms and pickup truck beds filled with fruit, but does little to illustrate the immense number of human hands and machinery that are involved in the harvesting, cleaning, sorting, prepping, and packaging of your produce. Being able to witness the mechanics and sophistication of the packing and shipping process gives a new light to our modern food systems and new meaning to the utopian image of the farm to table movement.
NEW at Earl’s Organics! Chinese dragon tongue radishes are long and skinny with a bright white flesh. At first taste they seem rather mild but the spiciness increases with each bite. Perfectly delicious to snack on or cut up and add to a salad. Look for radish bunches with fresh greens and no signs of wilting. Eat them as soon as possible or they will lose their crunch. Limited quantities available!