"From the, uh, the vegetable store...?", was always their questioning answer.
The vegetable store indeed. But where is that vegetable store? Or the fruit store for that matter?
Just last week I received the answer to those questions as I participated in a behind the scenes tour of various farms in Southern California's Imperial and Coachella Valleys. As guests of the California Farm Water Coalition, fellow bloggers Priscilla (She's Cookin'), Barbara (Barbara Cooks) and Jeanne (The Jolly Tomato), and I visited local farms growing produce making up some 60% of our nation's winter supply.
Located in the very south of Southern California, the Imperial Valley boasts mild winter temperatures making it the perfect growing venue for winter vegetables including spinach, various types of lettuce, carrots, onions and broccoli, among numerous other varieties.
|Every drop counts...|
While farming may seem like "big business", most of the farms in the valleys are still family owned, and many of these families have been farming their lands for generations. Water scarcity in recent years however, has some farmers allowing their lands to go fallow for seasons, some seasons stretching into years.
The Faces of Farming
|LaBrucherie Spinach Field|
While we missed the actual harvest, J.P. described the scene with a machine slicing the tender leaves from the plant, essentially doing what needed a field of people in the past. The plant is then left to re-grow, but as the remaining leaves may be somewhat damaged from the initial cutting and simply not as pretty as the first round, these leaves are then cut for frozen or chopped packaging.
As an side interesting note... have you ever noticed those slender leaves in your spinach bag? I've always wondered if they were another plant somehow mixed in by accident, however they are actually the first little leaves to emerge from the spinach sprout. Same plant, simply a different shape.
Moving on to lettuce, J.P. brought our team to his iceberg and romaine fields. Entering the field the scent of fresh salad wafted around us as J.P. plucked heads from the ground, broke off the root end and and served up romaine crisper than any I've ever tasted. Beautiful specimens are actually harvested by hand and packed right there at the field, a process I'd love to see in person one day.
Irrigated by furrows, the fields are tilted ever so slightly to encourage the water to flow from one end to another while keeping the produce dry and the roots wet.
Making our way toward the Coachella Valley, our next stop brought the heavenly scent of citrus blossoms as Dennis Jensen, of Seaview Packing, took us through lemon and orange groves. With the groves nearing the end of the picking season new growth sprouted from the freshly manicured, squared off trees, and the fragrant blossoms brought the beginning of next year's crop to life.
Growing the popular Medjool and Deglet Noor (meaning Tree of Light) varieties, the palms provide a beautiful Garden (did you know a Date "Grove" is properly called a Date "Garden"?) and have piqued my interest in dates. More on that in the weeks to come...
Moving on to the orange section of the farm, workers worked at picking the last of the beautiful Valencias from the heavily laden trees.
With a family-like familiarity, Mr. Jensen greeted workers with smiles and jolly laughs, and workers spoke with thankfulness and appreciation for the opportunities on this farm. One woman in particular spoke how Mr. Jensen had passed his knowledge of the industry to her as they worked together and she now works in management at an adjacent farm. Her contagious laugh had us all smiling right along with her.
Taking us through the groves Mr. Jensen passed out bags giving us the opportunity to pick and pack our own oranges showing that a certain skill is indeed necessary to pick quickly and properly so as not to injure the trees and branches or oneself. Picking oranges in quantity is not quite as easy as it might seem.
Perfectly suited to drip irrigation, lines bring water directly to the root of the trees with no wastage in the process.
Automated to bring exactly what is needed, the water is pulled from the Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal, now a lined (it used to be an earthen canal, and is now lined with cement) canal to eliminate seepage while flowing, farmers open aqueducts to bring water into ponds which is then readily available when needed.
The largest Pepper Grower in California, Prime Time doesn't take its title of "The Pepper People" lightly. Bringing green, red and yellow peppers to market nearly 365 days a year, Prime Time uses conventional fields as well as hothouses screened with mesh to assure the marketplace receives high quality peppers.
"One of the richest growing regions in the world, this fertile ground and warm climate are ideal for the demands of growing premium-quality peppers. Coachella Valley is the base of Prime Time's operations. Peppers are grown both in spring and fall seasons."
Hence, each little plant gets its own personal water spout and is fed and watered just the perfect amount to bring big, beautiful peppers to our markets.
And then there are the hot house varieties. Thicker walled peppers are cultivated in mesh hot houses which allows the pepper production season to stretch year round. Hot houses bring a longer growing season, disease and insect as well as inclement weather protection and as much as 4 times the crop when compared to conventional methods. However, those benefits come at a cost of some 4 times as much as conventional methods.
|Prime Time's conventional pepper fields - Coachella Valley|
With peppers on my mind, a few gorgeous red beauties found their way onto my grill for one of our favorite, yet very simple meals. Filled with grilled peppers (I have a feeling the are from Prime Time...!), grilled onions (probably from the Imperial Valley), brown rice, beans and a loads of fresh ingredients (including ripe avocado most likely from one of my favorite farms in Temecula), this Mexican Rice Bowl has earned a spot on the favorite list. Join me? And when you get the chance... thank a farmer.
California Mexican Rice Bowl
Filled with fresh ingredients, this rice bowl brings all the flavors of a Mexican fajita to the table. Enjoy with grilled chicken if desired.
prepared rice (brown or white)
prepared refried beans
grilled red, green or yellow peppers*
grilled sweet onion*
Scoop about 1/2 cup (more or less as desired) of the rice into a bowl. Top with a few spoonfuls of refried beans, then top with vegetables (and fruits!). Garnish with scallions and cilantro and a dollop of salsa if desired. Enjoy!
*to grill onions and peppers, cut vegetables to fit on grill. Rub with a small amount of oil and place on a preheated grill. Turn heat to medium, and cover. Grill for a few minutes, or until the vegetables have nice grill marks, then flip. Grill a few minutes more and remove.
Cool. If desired remove pepper skins as peppers cool, they should slide off fairly easily.