Natural Foods Merchandiser

Down on the farm

“If you can’t see your breath, it isn’t cold enough in here,” Steve Janedis, director of business development for Veg-Land/JBJ Distributing, told 60 shivering Expo West Farm Tour attendees huddled in one of the Fullerton, Calif.-based farmer/distributor’s cold packing rooms. “Strawberries love the cold.” Expo West visitors? Not so much.

But the group soldiered on, following Janedis through Veg-Land’s distribution center, where tons and tons of carrots, zucchinis, peppers, beans and strawberries pass through on their way to stores across the country. Tour attendees --some from as far afield as Ukraine, Italy, Japan and Jamaica--peppered Janedis with questions ranging from the basics of U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification to teaching workers the finer points of knife handling.

With 27 years in the industry, Janedis, former produce director of Whole Foods Market, tried to convey the sense of urgency inherent in produce work--a point underscored by the bleating of the forklift warning horns as they hauled pallets of carrots and strawberries around the facility while he tried to speak. “The race begins in the field,” he said, as soon as produce is picked, to get it across the country, on the shelves and into consumers’ hands before spoiling.

Next, the Farm Tour buses cruised down the freeway to one of Veg-Land’s Irvine, Calif., fields, nestled not-quite-idyllically between two strips of condos and a freeway. Attendees wandered among row upon row of strawberry plants, sampling the bright red fruit.

Alan Price, president of the Orange County Farm Bureau, explained how ladybugs and onions planted among the berries help fight invading mites, how plastic wrapping on the raised beds keeps the plants warm at night and how the Santa Ana winds tend to blow in dust with “pests clinging onto each piece.”

Organic practices often demand creativity to complement age-old farming knowledge, Price pointed out. For instance, “sometimes the cops get a lot of calls about guys with guns wandering around the fields,” he said. At times, the seagulls (and their unwelcome deposits) get so numerous workers have to pace the fields, shooting blanks to scare the gulls away. “That’s farming,” laughed Price.

Apparently, the “make-my-day” method of bird control makes for a great crop of strawberries. “These are outrageous!” said April Wong Loi Sing of Chicago, as she bit into another berry. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I’d seen berries this big and red in the market that they were grown without pesticides, but here they are.” You could no longer see Sing’s breath as she spoke, just the strawberry juice dribbling down her chin.

Shara Rutberg
Senior editor
Natural Foods Merchandiser

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