Big Ag, Small Ag, Good Ag, Bad Ag

By Chris Callahan

No, this isn’t a new Dr. Seuss story, but my son loves the rhythmic, nonsensical, meaningful stories that we share when we read those books. I sometimes feel like I live in a Dr. Seuss book while working on harvesters and postharvest practices among our local food system.  And I’ve seen some even bigger machines recently that belong in one of these stories.

Picture 2 - Romaine HarvestRomaine harvest in Salinas. The harvester platform moves slowly ahead as the pickers cut heads from the ground and trim outer leaves.

I had an opportunity to visit several large farm and food operations in California and the scale and complexity of the systems was striking to me.  If you don’t know me yet, you should know that I am fascinated by machines and anything that makes someone’s job easier, safer, or more productive.  I spend most of my days with feet firmly planted on the Vermont ground working with smaller scale, diversified producers and processors who sell very close to home. Imagine my awe standing in front of a romaine lettuce harvester with 20 workers on and around it whirling heads of romaine from ground to hand to knife to conveyor belt, belt to bag, bag to box, box to pallet, pallet to truck.

I observed and timed a couple of the men harvesting. (“Men always harvest, women always pack” I was told.) The fastest I saw was cutting, trimming, and placing a head of romaine every 5 seconds (most were at 10 seconds); his eyes went from the ground to the product to the belt and that was it.  He had a technique that involved flipping the head in the air with just the right rotation and speed to remove the bulk of the undesired outer leaves. Most of the other harvesters were trimming with knives or pulling the outer leaves off by hand taking longer to do the job.

By the way, ever wondered why every bag of romaine has a solid colored bottom? Rust. After 5 days of transit, the product rusts and that is unappealing to the consumer so the solid band blocks the view.  I know you’ll do the same thing I did next time you walk through the produce area of your local supermarket.  Check it out, the bags are all solid colored on the bottom (generally blue, although some have very fancy rolling hills and barn tableaus now).

At another stop I visited one of the largest berry producers in the world where they conduct 23,000 breeding crosses each year in search of the perfect berry that has vigor, yield, color, form, flavor, and postharvest performance.  Postharvest performance?  Yes, the ability to harvest fruit which predictably ripens and retains quality and flavor in storage and in transit is a sought after trait. It is being bred for at this company. Every worker at this facility wore a hi-visibility traffic vest emblazoned on the back with the phrase “Ask me what delight is.” So I did.  I asked a fork truck driver named Juan what delight is.  He politely shutdown the vehicle, stepped down to the floor I was standing on and said, “Delight is a berry with abundant and predictable production, appealing color, expected form, delicious flavor, and postharvest characteristics the customer doesn’t have to think about.”  This wasn’t the head of quality. This was a fork truck driver pushing 1,000 pounds of palleted berries into a precooler.

Picture 1 - Driscolls BerriesPanoramic view of Driscoll Berries breeding plots. 23,000 cross are tested each year seeking improvements in vigor, yield, color, form, flavor, and postharvest performance (including delivered flavor).

Another stop was a major producer of salad mixes and greens that was identified as the source of a major food-borne illness outbreak several years back.  I’ve worked in factories.  This was a factory.  But it was a very smart factory.  From the time the product entered the receiving dock, there were no hands touching it.  Think about that.  Baby greens harvested in the field making it all the way to palletized containers without being touched by a human hand. “Unfortunately, our workers, the ones who add the most value to our product, were our greatest risk for food safety,” our guide relayed.  You can’t ignore that when it comes out of a root cause analysis triggered by the death of a consumer.  This same business conducts pre-planting reviews of all fields for risk assessment. They had trouble with clam-shell container suppliers meeting quality, so they built a plastic thermoforming plant within their salad mix plant to address the problem.

Picture 3 - Bolthouse Farms“Mini-sweet” mixed peppers being washed in an automate line at Baloian Packing Co.  This product was developed due to an abundance of under sized peppers and the observation that they were actually quite sweet and marketable.

I’m not trying to sell anyone on the large scale production I witnessed in California.  I’m more firmly convinced that the Northeast, in general, and Vermont, in particular, are correctly scaled and oriented for our regional markets.  My point is that it has been helpful to me to pick my head up, open my eyes, check my surroundings, and see how it is done elsewhere.  One of my motivations for making this trip was seeing how similar experiences have benefited the farms and processors I work with. Can small farms learn from big ag (and vice versa)?  For sure. A field worker picking romaine lettuce innovated a better way of harvesting his crop without any additional cost or resources.  That can be adopted elsewhere, and I’ve seen similar approaches to harvesting in our area that utilize “Yankee ingenuity”.  Packaging can help present product in the most appealing way.  I’ve seen that done at Vermont farmer’s markets and farm stands with excellence.  A fork truck driver knew the definition of value in his company’s operation.  Quality is a culture we can all nurture, and often do. But do we do it intentionally and routinely?  A producer embraced a bad situation in order to understand why it happened and how they could improve. Food safety is a continual journey of discovery and improvement; not a document in a binder or a completed checklist.

Back to Dr. Seuss.  Of course we can all keep reading with our eyes shut, however

There are so many things you can learn about, but
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.

Happy harvesting.

Chris Callahan is an engineer and Assistant Professor of Agricultural Engineering with UVM Extension.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health.