All the store Produce Managers and I took a trip to California last week to spend some time with four of our growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Managers Chris (Bainbridge), Jim (Mill Creek), Bruce (Poulsbo), Brent (Ballard) and James (Shoreline) and myself spent June 20-22 picking and tasting fruit and vegetables – all in the interest of connecting with our partners and the products they grow for our markets. The best way to authentically connect is to be face-to-face with them, and walk in their shoes through their fields to best understand their passion for growing great food, being stewards of the environment and feeding the greater community.
Our journey began with a full day at Family Tree Farms, owned by Dave Jackson and his sons. Daniel, one of Dave’s sons, led our tour of the orchards where we learned about tree grafting, pruning, irrigation, pollination and much, much more of all that goes into growing superb peaches, nectarines and plumcots. We toured their research and development facility where were able to taste and grade 25 varieties of stone fruit, assisting Eric (the R&D manager) select what varieties will be chosen for future planting based on flavor and eating quality.
Choosing varieties starts several years in advance when specific varieties are cross-pollinated to discover new possibilities. A breeder may start with as many as 50,000 cross-pollinizations that are then cultivated for two years in order to grow fruit, but it is not the fruit they are after. All trees grow the same fruit as before being cross-pollinated. What the cross-pollination does is produce seeds that are essentially a child of the two parent varieties – and this child is different. These seeds are then grown for three years to determine if the new variety is a winner or a loser. Out the 50,000 seeds the breeder starts with, only three to five will ever get selected for planting in an orchard. Then it’s another three to four years before they produce a crop ready for market.
While at Family Tree Farms we were able to taste and select varieties being harvested in time for our markets over the holiday week. The white-flesh peaches were exceptional. Enjoy this fruit while firm – in fact, all white-flesh peaches and nectarines eat best when firm. The yellow “peach pie” donut peach was a real WOW! Try this peach grilled and topped with a scoop of your favorite vanilla ice cream! And arriving next week is the plumogranate plumcot!!! This is not a cross between a pomegranate and a plum – although it has the deep dark red characteristics of a pomegranate (hence the name). But it’s actually one of those crosses between an apricot and a plum. This one is one of the very best of the entire year!
We finished the day with a fantastic meal at the Jackson’s home with the family. All were present, which speaks to the core values of Family Tree Farms. It’s all about the family and the great community they serve.
On day two, we visited Homegrown Organics farms and learned about the particular challenges and benefits of growing organically. We discovered a Country Sweet Variety Yellow Flesh Peach that was about to be harvested. They eat wonderfully and you can find these in our markets as we speak at a great value.
After a 5 a.m. trip to Starbucks on the third day, we headed north to G&S Farms in Brentwood, where the best corn we have ever tasted is grown. The produce managers were able to watch our corn being hand harvested where only the top (and best) ear from each stalk is selected. From there it travels a short distance where it is immediately hand-packed and iced to preserve the sweet flavor and tender texture. Only selected varieties achieve the G&S Farms “Diamond Label” brand. And everything that gets harvested each day is loaded on trucks and out to our markets within 48 hours.
Last, but not least, we went on to Durst Organic Farm in Esparto where those gorgeous variety cherry tomatoes are grown. After being in the 95-degree heat for a couple hours, we all have a new-found respect for all those farm workers who work in that heat, and hotter, to harvest these little gems for our markets. Jim Durst also grows zucchini,which is already in the markets, heirloom tomatoes and a variety of melons that we will see in a few weeks.
Then we were off to the airport and headed home. One of the managers commented: “I can only think of one word and that word would be ‘inspiring.’ I felt a genuine spiritual feeling from the people we met and a great sense of the farmer’s love for who they are, what they do, their families and feeding the world.”
I heard another one say: “The trip gave me a new appreciation for farmers and the risk, dedication and passion behind every piece of produce we receive. All with the one goal of getting us the best produce possible for our customer.”
It was a great trip. I wish each and every customer could experience this firsthand. But since that isn’t possible, we’ve brought the experience home and over the next couple weeks we will be sharing as much as possible with our staff and customers!
Have a great day!