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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

My day at the farm

As I mentioned last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Vernon Peterson at his farm in Kingsburg, CA.

Here's how I knew we were in the right spot!
Vernon is the brains and the energy behind Abundant Harvest Organics, as well as the owner of Peterson Family Farm, where he grows grapes and stone fruits and raises chickens.

My kids were excited to meet a real farmer and see a real farm. I was excited to see them make a stronger connection between the meals I serve and the place where the ingredients grew. Little did I know we were all going to get an amazing education!

Before we arrived, I reminded the kids to be friendly and look him in the eye when they met him. My youngest asked if he would have to shake his hand. I replied "I imagine so. If he holds his hand out, shake it." He then asked, "Will he be dirty?" I guess he imagined Mr. Peterson coming straight from working the fields to meet us.

I have to admit, though, he wasn't the only one who didn't quite get the whole picture beforehand. I was absolutely amazed at how big, busy and high-tech the farm is. Peterson Family Farm not only grows their own fruit, they also serve as a packing company for neighboring farms.

loading freshly picked peaches onto a conveyor which will sort them by size

I was also greatly impressed with Vernon himself. I tried to think of a word I could use to describe my impression of him. However, I can't limit him to one dimension. He is friendly, intelligent, energetic, interesting, and engaging. And that is all just the first impression!

Vern managed, in just a couple of hours, to hit on everything including science, politics, philosophy, business, history, technology, math, aesthetics, and humane-ness.

Here are some examples:
Science: He pointed out to us special little tabs that hang from his fruit trees. They smell like insects and therefore confuse the little critters so much they can't mate and reproduce... thus protecting his fruit from future generations without spraying anything on the crops or the soil.

the soil is so nutrient-rich, a melon has volunteered to grow  in the middle of the plum trees!

Politics: As Vern said (and I am paraphrasing) "Farmers are getting a real bad rap. But, they can only grow what people are willing to buy."

Philosophy: Vern pointed out a branch on a plum tree that was growing straight up, full of leaves, and without any fruit. He explained that this sucker (a branch that sucks up water but doesn't produce fruit) needs to be bent down. As he said (again, to paraphrase) "Once this proud branch that reaches for the sun gets humbled enough to bend like the rest of the branches, it will become one of the best producers on this tree. People, too, need to remember to stop reaching so high. As soon as they stop trying to reach up so much, they produce a lot more that is valuable." I get the feeling that these are words Vern lives by. From the license plate on his Chevy truck -- "Well Blessed" to the regard he shows for his employees, Vern strikes me as a man who hasn't let his successes outweigh his humility.

What better way to see a farm than in the back of a pickup?
Business: The chickens in his chicken house are given plenty of water to drink, just above their heads. When I asked why they tip their heads up to drink, he explained that they can't swallow, but rather let the water pour down their throats. By making that process easier for them, they save their calories for growing, rather than for working for their drink. In other words, the chicken is as big as possible when it is time to slaughter.

Technology: Vern pointed out to us so many cool things in his packing shed! There are lasers that read barcodes in order to correctly credit each packer for her work, cameras that use pixels to determine the size of a fruit, conveyor belts that are able to sort the fruit by size automatically, and a printer that can label a box as it slides on down the conveyor belt. I was astounded by how quickly fruit could be measured, sorted, boxed, and sent out. Lucky for the consumer, that means that fruit is as fresh as possible on the day he eats it.

Math: Consumption of organic produce rises by double-digit percentages each year. Isn't that great? However, organic produce only accounts for a tiny share of the produce market in general. So, huge gains within organic farming still represent small gains in the big picture of farming. Because of this, organic farmers still only sell 20% (I sure hope I am remembering these numbers correctly) of their yield as organic. The rest is sold as conventional produce. This way, they don't flood the market and drive their own prices down.

Grapes that I should be able to eat in a few weeks!
Aesthetics: Vern showed us a couple of rows of fruit that he planted just for the Abundant Harvest customers. These plums are yellow and almost football-shaped. As he explained, "Most people in a store don't want to buy these. They don't look that great. But boy are they delicious. That is why I thought the Abundant Harvest people [who are often looking for more adventuresome eating] would like them."

grape vines
Humane-ness: Vern explained also how he tries to give his chickens the best little chicken-lives they can have during their short stay at his farm. While they grow from fuzzy little chicks to big plump roasters, they have indoor and outdoor living accommodations, diversions (such as branches to peck at and hay bales to climb), a cooled house that was a welcome stop and a much more pleasant temperature than the fields we humans walked in from, and organic food that Vern cajoled me into tasting (in my opinion a little dry, but then again, I'm not a chicken). They sure seemed like happy little guys to me!

This little guy has the best home on the farm!
All in all, I am hugely impressed and grateful that I got to spend a couple of house on a real live working farm. I sure appreciate more about the food I am getting in my box each week. It is simply amazing that the money I am spending on it is such a low price. I realize this more than ever, now that I have seen the work and dedication it takes to grow and distribute this amazing food.

Thanks, Vern!