Facts Not Fears Tour: My Grey Thumb Experience

If you know me well, you know I’m a foodie with a grey thumb. When I receive a potted plant as a gift, I place it lovingly into the care of someone who will help it thrive — usually my mother-in-law. None of this precludes my agriculture nerdiness. As a Wisconsin girl through and through, and an Indian-American with family in India, I’ve seen farms in both the midwest and in my parents’ home country. But never have I had a farm experience like I did last month, when I got to visit several fields in Salinas Valley in California. Sponsored by Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), and part of the Markon annual Produce Summit, I joined a small bus of bloggers, writers, and scientists to observe produce packing facilities, and harvests of iceberg and romaine lettuce, artichokes, celery, broccoli, and strawberries.

Picking some of the freshest produce I’ve ever tasted and picking some amazing brains, including growers of both conventional and organic, registered dietitians, scientists in areas including pesticides, nutrition, food safety, and flavor, chefs, and buyers, was an ag nerd’s dream come true.

Here are some of the highlights:

Labor shortage is, across the board, a problem that all producers share. The downside of this includes food waste — think fruit rotting on the vines. It’s also leading to higher wages and a more highly-skilled and trained but smaller workforce. Immigration reform is important, but in the meantime, necessity is the mother of invention. One example is this water blade machine that automates a large part of the harvest of romaine lettuce.

Some fruits and veggies require a skilled human brain to make judgement calls during harvest. Take broccoli for example. It grows at different rates, so pickers usually have to take two or even three passes over a field, picking what’s ready and leaving smaller heads to grow to the right size.

A broccoli seedling like this one takes up to 45 days from seed to seedling in the greenhouse. Once it’s planted in the field, it’s 70–90 days until harvest. The plant only yields one broccoli crown and will not yield again. Once the crown is harvested, the rest of the plant becomes a natural compost to nourish the soil, which is already considered the “Cadillac of Monterey County soil!”

The 2006 e. Coli outbreak from contaminated spinach weighs heavily on everyone in the produce industry. Automation is implemented not only to deal with labor shortage, but to prevent contamination from human hands. After the field and facility tours, and roundtable discussion, I am more confident than I ever have been with regard to foodborne illness. Safety protocols always have room for improvement but Markon, for one, is a leader in food safety, with its impressive 5-Star Food Safety Program.

The bottom line is as clear as it’s ever been — all the fruits and veggies in American markets are safe and nutritious, as detailed at safefruitsandveggies.com, and I feel confident feeding them to my family. If you want to choose organic, that’s fine! While organic practices have raised the bar for all of agriculture since the launch of the USDA Organic program in the nineties, there was never anything exclusive to organic farming with regard to approved practices and substances. Conventional farmers have all tools and substances at their disposal, while organic farmers rely on a shrinking list. Given this, the primary reason farmers choose to grow organic is to fill market demand, and this market demand is often based on misleading scare tactics. All farmers, conventional and organic, can be responsible stewards of the land. I’m more convinced than ever that it’s important to think critically about our goals as consumers, to think twice when encountering a new food label, and to be thankful to the people who grow, pick, package, and transport our food.

Disclosure: This blog post is part of my sponsored agreement with Alliance for Food and Farming.

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