Do you ever think about where your food comes from? You probably do. What do you picture? What does a farm look like in your mind? Today I had an opportunity to visit a farm and I jumped at the chance. The company is B&W and what they farm is watercress and arugula. Even better than ordinary arugula, what they farm is a species of arugula more common in Europe, known as Rocket (Raw-KET) or Roquette. They have farms up and down the east coast because these greens are more than a little finicky where weather is concerned. Right now, however, the farm in Florida is in full swing and I was thrilled when one of my sous chefs asked if I’d like to take a tour.
My day began in the office of a VP. I commented that the packaging looked familiar to me and learned that B&W ships to HEB and Central Market. We talked a little about the grocery business and waited for the other members of our party to arrive. Once everyone was gathered, we jumped on an old bus that brought back memories of church camp and being broken down on the side of the road and headed out to the fields. B&W leases their land from AgSun – a company that deals mostly with citrus. The fields that we looked at were surrounded by orange groves and judging by the sweet smell in the air, they’re just about ripe.
First we stopped by a roquette field. B&W owns several 350-acre parcels and their crops are rotated through, giving the land a rest when it needs it. What is the difference between arugula and roquette? Arugula leaves are a bit broader and the tips rounded. The flavor is bitter but mellow. Roquette, however, is shorter, spikier and more peppery. Their roquette takes about 45 days from sowing to harvest. They use an exclusive seed that they purchase from California which is produced specifically for B&W so you won’t find the same product from anyone else. Refrigerated seed banks are keep the seeds chilled to the ideal temperatures at all times for optimum success.
After a short Q&A, we boarded the bus and headed to the watercress field. B&W produces three types of watercress. One is a food service grade that is sold mostly to Asian outlets. It’s larger, heartier and will hold up to cooking better than the other varieties. Evidently Asians cook and consume almost twice the watercress of other cultures. Another is smaller and what you’d probably more commonly see at HEB – more delicate and ideal for consuming raw. The third was red watercress. Beautiful, delicious. I had never seen red watercress before and it was, by far, my favorite. We were able to pick and sample the varieties of everything right out in the field. While arugula grows in traditional plowed fields, watercress grows in beds of flowing water. For this, beds are laser-leveled to be perfectly flat and then the grade is altered to provide a very slight slope. A water source is placed at the high end of the bed and water is allowed to constantly flow through during the growing process. Since this farm is just west of Vero Beach, water sources come from a series of canals that have been dug around all of the beds. This also allows for easy nutrient delivery as they can be placed directly into the water. Today they were actually harvesting watercress for bagging so it was fun to see that process.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 6 seasonal farms up and down the east coast, stretching as far north as Pennsylvania. B&W hires only full-time legal workers as they believe that this gives them better quality control and a better product. As the farm activity moves, so do the workers. B&W provides them with year-round housing and transportation at farm locations. All employees are provided with fair wages, insurance and education incentives. From an agriculture standpoint, I found this commendable.
I was also constantly aware of the waste. Slightly discolored roquette leaves, bruised watercress, etc. They actually produce several tons of green waste each week. It turns out that a good-hearted person has also leased land from AgSun and developed an elephant refuge for former circus performers and other long-trunked pachyderms passed their prime. He takes all of the waste from B&W and the elephants live out their elder days feasting on delicious bitter greens.
Once we were done in the fields we headed back to the plant to see how the greens go from farm to market. I was first impressed with the attention to sanitation and safety. We were asked to remove all jewelry and leave all personal items behind. Then we donned lab coats, head covers and scrubbed our hands up to the elbows. The inside of the entire plant is kept at a constant 34 degrees. Sadly, we were not allowed to take photographs here.
The process is pretty simple and yet remarkably high tech. The greens are brought in from the field and immediately placed into a vacuum cooler that will cool them to 34 degrees almost instantly. Heat is the enemy and all crops when harvested develop whats known as “field heat”. For every one hour of time that the product stays above 35 degrees, it supposedly looses one day of shelf life. B&W knows that it’s product will take some degree of abuse after leaving the facility (truck doors left open, etc) so it does everything it can on it’s end to get it cooled fast and keep it cold. Once the vacuum cooler has done it’s job the greens are fed into a sorter that uses state of the art laser technology to measure chloroform in each leaf and identify those that do not meet the predetermined standards. A puff of air then takes out the less desirable leaves and drops them to the floor. Once the greens have made it through there, a worker goes through by hand and removes any other pale or bruised leaves that were missed by the laser. A Quality Control person takes handfuls every 15 minutes and checks them. The conveyor takes them into the next room where they’re washed with purified water and then sanitized with a slightly chlorinated water. The leaves must then be dried. They go through a belt dryer that first shakes water and then blows them. Usually greens are dried in tumble dryers but these leaves are so delicate that this can cause bruising. The belt dryers work well. We were able to look in the dryer windows and see the leaves as they passed through. From here, the leaves are carried up the belt to packaging, where they are bagged, once again checked by employees and packed in boxes on pallets, ready to be shipped. When it’s time for the trucks to be loaded, they back into the dock and then a special seal inflates to the size of the truck. The doors can then be opened with no warm air creeping into the building. The drivers are not allowed into the loading area but they go into a special waiting room with monitors where they can watch the product being loaded via cameras.
The entire process was fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the tour. When we were done with the plant, we, once again, boarded the bus and were taken to a secluded picnic area in a grove of palm trees and fed lunch. Sandwiches with watercress, roquette and pea tendrils (another of their products), salad, chips and cupcakes. A wonderful relaxing end to a great day.
I hear that there might be a tour of a strawberry farm coming up in February and I’m excited. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to learn about how our food goes from farm to fork.