What do You Value?
The Big Box stores are doing a few things right. They have the ability to cheaply move produce around the globe and offer for sale an OK diversity of inexpensive vegetables. This global, industrial solution to the sale of food works, at least in the sense that Americans have better seasonal availability of produce than they did 50-60 years ago. This fossil fuel heavy system is good at moving farm products around, but fails when it comes to freshness and taste. This is where you can realize a real benefit by buying local.
Crops that are much more flavorful locally: Tomatoes. Greens of all kinds. Carrots – they still smell like carrots. Sweet corn. New Potatoes. Garlic. Cilantro. Basil. Frost sweetened fall Brassicas (Broccoli & Cabbage Family). Arugula. Peas.
At LRO we grow great deal of salad mixes. Our ideal mix is five varieties of lettuce in addition to arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, and baby kale (mustard greens that give texture and some zing). We use a one row 1950’s Planet Junior seeder to direct seed the mustard greens and hand transplant 400 lettuce transplants each week from April through August. These green receive generous water and after five weeks, we begin harvesting. All of our harvest is done by hand at 7am. The greens are then taken to our wash station where they are dunked and sorted. Then they go to a larger tank where all of the ingredients are mixed together. Finally, we pull them out and use a large, electric salad spinner to remove excess water. The last step is to bag the mixes and get them into a cooler as soon as possible. At best, we are able to harvest, process, and bag salad greens at 8lbs an hour. A 32lb batch of salad mix from field to cooler has a total cost of $80.
While the retail cost is higher, our salad has a much longer shelf life due to the short time period between harvest and sale. Taste and flavor are also improved.
Industrial salads spend much of their shelf-life on transportation from the West Coast. They are only able to do this because oxygen is removed from the containers and replaced with nitrogen. As soon as you open these clamshells, your salad begins to degrade. While the retail price is lower, a three to five day shelf-life at home become a false economy when half of the clamshell is tossed out on day 5.
Cali Industrial Salad
Salad that you buy in the Box Store is a totally different product than what our farm produces. Seasonally, it is grown in California, Arizona, Mexico, or the Pacific Northwest. What’s the difference? In the field, the direct seed crops the same as we do, but they have late model equipment instead of gravity feed seeders from the 50’s. After seeding, large crews hand weed the entire crop. Weeding by hand for extended periods is hard on the fingertips. Producers provide bandaids with metal in them. Why would you put metal in a bandaid? Because you don’t want a bandaid in someones’s salad. After the greens have been mechanically harvested they go through an automated wash system that has metal detectors. There is an alarm if a metal infused bandaid somehow slips through.
These greens are then packed into the common 1/2 and 1lb clamshells. Before the lids are closed, nitrogen gas replaces ambient air so that the greens have longer shelf-life. They’re then loaded on a truck and make the 2440 mile trek to your ‘local’ store. Once in the store they sit waiting for someone to buy them. What does the price tag get you? A clamshell of salad that is going to start breaking down as soon as the seal is broken and oxygen gets into the container. Unless you consume that salad quickly, it will break down in three days.