Tomato Farm Tour

The Central Valley of California is hot. On the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, water is scarce, with rainfall limited to 10 inches every year. Temperatures here are in the 100’s during the growing seasons, and the sun beats down without clouds to provide relief.

Knowing this one would be surprised that the area has some of the most fertile soil in the country.  The soil here is sandy and well drained the perfect soil to grow tomatoes, almonds, pistachios, cantaloupe, and grapes for raisins. That is of course, if you had the water to support the growing season.

In Los Banos, water is brought in by a series of water canals that provide water to much of California. In fact, the water accumulated at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, travels via canal as far south as San Diego, making a gigantic loop, to ensure California’s water needs are met. The largest off-stream reservoir in the U.S, the San Luis Dam and Reservoir, can be seen from HWY 152 on the way to Los Banos from San Jose. The reservoir’s blue-green water is a sight to behold, and a highlight of the trip from San Jose.

So what brings us to Los Banos, CA? We are here to see the tomato harvest, which is now at its peak.

 

That is our tour guide, Roger Scriven of Morning Star in the picture. He’s ‘that guy’. You know the one from the commercial with the farmer out standing in his field, in a highly successful marketing campaign led by one of those very high profile pizza chains. Roger works in Tomato Acquisition, but to us, he is the preeminent expert on all things tomato. He has been in the industry since 1968, bringing 45 years of tomato expertise. He logs an impressive 80,000 miles per year, driving the length and breadth of the Central Valley. He is responsible for field contracts, tomato variety allocations, and is the primary contact between Morning Star and its 125 farmers. Over the course of the growing season, the farmers contracted with Morning Star to produce an amazing 3.8 million tons of tomatoes on an estimated 80,000 acres.

It’s pretty typically warm today in the Central Valley, with the temperature on the thermometer reading 106 degrees F. And we thought, coming from Austin, Texas, that we would get a reprieve from the heat! No such luck. In fact the temperatures and lack of rainfall in Los Banos, CA closely mirror our weather back in Austin.

So Allison, 4 of our work colleagues, and I hopped in the King Ranch-Mobile, eager to learn all we can about the tomato harvest.  Roger had other plans for us though, and we were in for the royal treatment, as we were going to get the extended tour.

Our first stop on the tour: a raisin tasting. Who knew that raisins were dried right on the vine? Roger explained that raisins used to be cut from the vine, then laid out on tarps to dry between the rows of vine. The issue with this practice is that the grapes did not get enough air circulation, and a percentage lost to mold overgrowth. Recent innovations are producing better quality raisins with less lost to mold. Current practice is that the grape vines are strung on a wire system that runs between rows. This produces a canopy of grapes. Once the grapes are ready for dehydration, the vines are cut, and the grapes hang to dry.

Quite the beautiful site, don’t you think?  And the raisins we ate right off the vine were very delicious. The darker ones tasted of caramel and the lighter ones of kiwi and apple.  Here’s a closer look at these beauties:

 

Our next stop was a cotton field. Cotton, along with corn and wheat, are the only subsidized crops in California. We got a whole new respect for where our clothes come from for sure.

Cotton fields are very pretty; the flowers, which begin flowering from the bottom and work their way up the plant, bear a striking resemblance to hibiscus flowers. Further research confirmed that they are in the same family. 

Once the flower bloom dies, a pod forms:

Once this pod reaches the mature size, it is harvested for the cotton that resides inside of the pod.  We pulled one of the pods apart and found fibrous material surrounding 3 seeds in each of the pod’s chambers.

It is so hard to believe that our clothing comes from this tiny bit of material in each of the pods! I cannot imagine how much cotton has to be produced to keep everyone clothed!

After we left the cotton field, Roger took us to a pistachio grove. One of the interesting things I found out about pistachios is that the trees are dioecious. To the layman, this simply means that the trees are either male or female. So throughout the pistachio grove one can see trees without any pistachios. The trees pollinate by wind so it’s essential to have the right number of male trees.

 The pistachio is originally from Persia and is related to the cashew and mango. We tried one of the nuts right off the tree and were surprised by how different it tastes. It was very moist and was very reminiscent of peas and avocados. Here is what they look like in the tree:

As the water content in the pistachios dehydrates, they naturally start to split their shells. They are run through a tumbler with hooks on it that separates the shells. Any pistachios that do not open in the tumbler are sent to the shelling process.

After we tasted pistachios, we hopped in the truck and were off to view the tomato harvest.

One of the interesting things about how Morning Star Farms runs their harvesting operation is that they are involved from the seedling transplant, all the way up to harvest of the tomatoes. In fact, interestingly enough, the farmers do not harvest their tomato crops. Instead, one of Morning Star 45 harvesters is sent to the farm. This serves several purposes, but mainly to ensure that the tomato can be verified back to origin, and that no tampering has taken place. It also guarantees that the tomatoes are sent to processing anywhere from 2-4 hours after they are harvested. I would suppose that if it were left to the farmers, this would not always be the case.

Here is one of the harvesters, which by the way, costs a measly 400k to purchase:

That is the harvester on the right. On the left is a tractor with two attached hauling trailers. During the harvesting season, Morning Star is the largest freight company in the country, due to the sheer volume of produce these trucks move. 

Here is a picture of Chef Allison driving the harvester:

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This was taken right before the harvester clogged with morning glory vine, a common hazard in the tomato harvesting process.

The harvester itself is a conveyor system with spikes all along the grid. The front of the conveyor system lies just several inches above the ground. 

 

The conveyor pulls up the entire tomato vine, shakes loose the tomatoes that fall onto a sorting conveyor, while the plant material is ground up and shot back onto the field for compost.  The tomatoes are then brought up another conveyor that shoots them into the hauling trailers:

Sauce/dice tomatoes are picked by machine due to the fact that the tomatoes grow underneath the vines, so as to be protected from the sun’s rays:

A single tomato vine can surprisingly hold up to 60 lbs of fruit! It can get very heavy, just ask Pam:

Watering of crops is done with drip line irrigations systems setup on timers and sensors that determine exact time and quantity of water on a drip schedule.

In the days leading up to the harvest for any given field, irrigation by drip lines is reduced. The reduction of water in the days leading up to harvest allows for easy separation of the tomatoes from the vines, as illustrated here:

It only took a flick of the wrist, and all of the tomatoes fell off the plant Roger was holding.

Sauce/dice tomatoes are much higher in pulp and taste nothing like a really good table tomato. Although I have to admit that fresh out of the field they taste so much better than the ones you buy in the store, mostly because sauce/dice tomatoes are picked ripe, while table tomatoes are picked green to survive the journey to market.

According to Roger, one to the most dangerous enemies to the tomato crop during the growing season, is ironically, rainfall.  So if rainfall comes unexpectedly to the field, it could result in a massive mold overgrowth, resulting in major crop losses.

Once the tomatoes are transported to the processing facility, they are weighed and sampled for several factors: worms, mold, green tomatoes, and MOT (material other than tomatoes). The farmer is paid for the tomatoes minus the amount of the 4 factors in the sample.  To prevent bias in the payment process, the sampling station is staffed by employees from PTAB (Processing Tomato Advisory Board).  In the 1970’s tomato inspection was governed by the state of California. Since it was a government run organization, both farmers and processors voiced concern that they were being overcharged. The PTAB was a natural outgrowth, and is funded by farmers and processors alike. The organization keeps the cost of the sampling affordable for all parties involved.

Here is a picture of the sampling process:

 

And here is the sampling table:

For security purposes this is as far as our tomato factory tour can go, but I will tell you that it was very interesting to see the process of making paste/sauce/diced tomatoes. From fresh, whole tomatoes to diced in a can or pouch in 4 hours is pretty impressive.

We still have a couple more stops on our farm tour though. The next stop on our tour was a cantaloupe field.  Melons are still picked the old-fashioned way. Mostly because melons that are too ripe will not survive the trip to the market. Again, just like table tomatoes, they have to be picked green to ensure intact delivery.  Lucky for us, there was no shortage of ripe melons in the field. We all got to try a slice and it was sweet with a still firm texture. 

The next place Roger showed us was by far my favorite: an almond grove. Almond trees are pollinated by bees, which are in short supply in California. The bees are brought in by truckloads from all over the country. The pollination requirement is so large in California that it is estimated that 1.5 million hives are required to adequately pollinate each year. 

Interestingly, the almond belongs to the same subgenus as peaches.  If you look at a peach and an almond side by side you see many similarities, including a fuzzy skin, and a pit (endocarp) surrounding the seed (drupe). The one major difference between the almond and the peach being that the almond has a very thin flesh compared to the peach.   

I was really fascinated with the almonds. They tasted really good but had a high water content.  They are harvested by shaking the trees. Then a raking machine lines them up in rows between the trees where they are allowed to dry. Then another machine comes along and picks them up off the ground, and they are then dumped into a transport pod. 

Our final stop on the tour was a dehydrator onion field. A dehydrator onion is a white onion that is allowed to dry in the field for a couple months, and is then turned into dehydrated onions for the chef’s pantry. A few of us even got brave enough to try a bite, and I think we were all surprised at the intensity and pungency of the onions!

We had a lot of fun on our trip to California’s Central Valley. Check back soon for our next edition!

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