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The Hands That Feed Us

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.

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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.

 

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Asparagus Seedlings: it takes two years after planting to produce spears.Asparagus Shoots: each underground crown produces 2-3 pounds of asparagus every week.Asparagus Shoots: each underground crown produces 2-3 pounds of asparagus every week.

 

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.

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