A Day on the Farm: Tanimura & Antle, Part 1

I don't know about you, but I guess I had been indoctrinated by film footage of food running over large conveyor belts with lots of stops along the way to packaging. This week I was shown that this not the case for many types of produce being grown in California.

I was invited by KnowaCaliforniaFarmer.com to go on tours of a couple of farms down in the Salinas area. What an eye opening day it was. I learned a lot about modern farming from the folks at Tanimura & Antle farms and also from Naturipe, the berry producers. This post will talk about Tanimura & Antle and be broken into two parts (Part 2: Workers & Safety). Then stay tuned for another post about Naturipe.

We were greeted at the headquarters of Tanimura & Antle (T&A) in the town of Spreckles. The building looks like it might have been a golf clubhouse at some time, but now it houses the offices for T&A. Inside hangs a portrait of the founders. Our guide for the morning was Brian Antle, third generation in the business. Brian told us the story of the two families.

The Tanimuras were a Japanese family that built themselves a good amount of acreage and business back at the beginning of the last century. During World War II they were shipped out to an internment camp and returned to California to find themselves pretty much robbed of everything they had owned. They had to start fresh once again and began farming a few acres. There was still anti-Japanese sentiment and they had a hard time selling what they grew. In came Bud Antle who told them he would buy their produce and then sell it under his name. Thus a partnership that has spanned many decades was formed. Today the Tanimuras take care of the farming end of the business and the Antles take care of marketing, harvesting, and overall management. The company's top positions are still held by family members, making it three generations.

Brian Antle boarded our bus and passed out hats. Hats or hairnets would be required out in the fields. Our first stop was to see the harvesting of their Artisan Lettuces.

the tango variety
Brian explained that T&A had a few proprietary vegetables that had been specially bred by them. There is no GMO (genetic modification) going on here, just old fashioned cross pollination. Brian's father had brought some specialty seeds back from Europe and by trial and error over many plant generations, they came up with three types (two colors each) of artisan lettuce. Think baby greens like the bag of mixed baby green salads in the store. Normally that means a lettuce grows up a bit and they harvest it while it is really young. These artisan lettuces, on the contrary, are actual full grown heads of lettuce that mimic the leaf shape and size of baby greens.

The three varieties they came up with are gem, tango, and oak. There are red and green versions of each. The gem is sweet, the tango is bitter, and the oak is on the bland side. Mix them all together and you have a wonderful, flavorful salad. It takes about 60-85 days, on average, to grow.

T&A then took streamlined the growing and harvesting out in the fields. They plant one row with the six versions. Now the harvester just goes down the row, cuts the lettuce and tosses it to the following truck where women are standing on the wings. They do a quick rinse and then IMMEDIATELY the lettuce goes into the clamshells and boxes for shipping. That's right, the lettuce goes from ground to final package in seconds and is barely touched at all!

The clamshells contain a mix of four for the supermarkets while the big boxes are filled with a mixture of all six to go to restaurants. The chefs like it because they have the freedom to decide how to use the lettuce - in salads, big leaves for burgers maybe, or garnish. The black plastic crates are from WalMart. They are used over and over again, reducing the use of cardboard shippers.

There is also an Artisan Romaine. We are used to getting a big bunch of romaine or, for special reasons, we might buy just the hearts of romaine. They have grown a specialty romaine now that is just like the hearts alone. It reminded me of endive in that all the leaves are cupped together. In fact, you could easily take a leaf off this type and use it as a boat for a filling. These are brand new and are only just starting to be massed produced, so keep an eye out in your store.

tasting Artisan Romaine
We then went to an iceberg lettuce field to watch the harvesting there. Here the cutters bag the lettuce themselves and toss it to the women on the truck. The women clip it and it goes right into a box. You can see the women are all covered up looking like some sort of lettuce terrorists, but in actuality, this covered garb is traditional for them. It's more a matter of keeping dirt and sun off of them so that they look nice at the end of the day when they take it all off.

You can see all this waste left on the ground. It gets tilled into the ground to provide nutrients back into the soil for the next harvest. Yet I saw LOTS of heads of rejected lettuce. Brian explained that the workers are so well trained that they can pick up a head and instantly tell if it is too light or not the right size. There also may be blemishes. Seemed so wasteful to me when so many are hungry. I would have gladly taken some of the rejects as they looked fine to me. Brian said that occasionally Ag Against Hunger would come out to glean behind the harvesters. They pick up the rejected heads and then ship them to food banks around the area. But that's only a few days a month. Think of all the thousands that are just left to rot. It makes you wish there was some mechanism to share this food but you know that it all boils down to funds. Who would pay for it to be collected and distributed?

Brian explained that they get two lettuce harvests per field and then they will rotate in another crop. T&A grows about two dozen different vegetables, so there might be brocolli, cauliflower, celery, onions, etc.

After the produce is taken from the field it gets driven to the cooling and shipping facility. Here a giant forklift will lift an entire trailor's worth from the truck to the chiller. Inside the chiller the air is vacuumed out and a gas mixture is pumped in. This prevents the growth of bacteria and causes the produce to be instantly chilled down to 34 degrees so that it will transport as fresh as possible. From farm to retailer can take from 1-5 days. How long it takes for the retailer to get it to you is another question and beyond their control. Conceivably, though, in California we could be eating their produce within 2-7 days depending on the retailer and the part of the state.

our lunch featured fresh produce
In the next post: field workers and food safety

For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork