Natural Foods Merchandiser

A berry good day on the organic raspberry ranch

Produce Perspectives

We've all heard that antioxidants protect us from cancer and heart disease, and that eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to get our daily intake of these disease-fighters. But did you know that fresh berries, like strawberries and raspberries, have some of the highest antioxidant levels of any fresh fruits?

Raspberries have three times more antioxidants than kiwis and 10 times more antioxidants than tomatoes, according to a March 2006 study in the journal BioFactors. And fresh berries are second only to spinach and kale in their oxygen radical absorbance capacity. ORAC values reflect the ability of a substance to neutralize free radicals, which are known to damage cell proteins and DNA. The higher a food's ORAC score, the more antioxidant power it has.

So what does all this have to do with the Expo West organic farm tour? Well, this year we are heading to an organic raspberry farm and berry-packing facility on the California coast. And not just any raspberry farm, but one that is affiliated with the well-known Driscoll family. The Driscolls have been growing berries for more than 100 years, and their products can be found in just about every store in the country.

Driscoll partners with independent farmers all around the world to grow its berries. Driscoll's Web site says many of the farmers who grow for the company have been doing so for several decades—some even for generations—which is one reason you see such consistent quality on a year-round basis.

The raspberry ranch we will visit, the McGrath Ranch, is part of Reiter Affiliated Companies, a farming group owned by Miles and Garland Reiter. We will be able to see raspberries in production at the very early part of the season. As we walk the fields, we'll see raspberries growing under plastic covers supported by metal poles. These hoops protect the berries from wind and rain while allowing good air circulation and abundant light.

The ranch has at least 70 acres of raspberries. An adjacent organic field grows cover crops in rotation with strawberries and sometimes even more raspberries. California Certified Organic Farmers has certified both fields organic.

As always, we will have the growers—and in this case, the RAC staff—on site to describe production practices and answer any of the varied questions that are sure to come up.

This part alone would be worth getting on a bus and spending the afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of the Expo West show floor, but it's only half of the excursion. We will also get to visit the Driscoll Strawberry Associates' cooler site, about 10 or 15 minutes from the field. We'll see the grading process for strawberries and raspberries, and learn about the "pay-for-quality" system that provides growers with a financial incentive to pack the finest berries. We should also see some strawberries during our visit, as strawberry production this time of year should be a bit ahead of raspberry production.

From there, we'll head over to see the pre-cooling part of the operation and Driscoll's Tectrol process. Tectrol is a naturally derived gas that lowers the respiration of berries and preserves freshness.

This informative experience will likely prompt even more questions:

  • How can there be fresh berries year-round?
  • Why are some strawberries white inside and others red?
  • Does the inside color affect the flavor?
  • What's the difference between organic and conventional berry production?
  • What is the white, waxy coating on raspberries, and is it safe?
You get the idea. And if you join me on this tour, you'll also get some answers.

The tour always sells out quickly, so sign up as soon as possible. This year I'll be joined on the buses by Brian McElroy, organic business manager for Driscoll's Strawberry Associates, to talk about anything that has to do with organics, growth, transitional practices, certification and other topics. And with New Hope handling the transportation and lunches, you can count on a comfortable ride and a tasty meal to go along with a wonderful Southern California spring day on the farm.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. Contact him at 707.939.8355 or [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 28

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