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FARM TO TABLE SPECIAL SECTION AUGUST 2017

“The outlook for 2018 to 2022 is huge for where this could go. There’s this conception that organic means lower yield, more expensive, lower density, but the gap is closing, and closing quickly because so many people are focusing on it right now. People are making it the focus of their careers now to bring the land back to what it can be.” Peter Navarra, Reiter Affiliated Companies

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Peter Navarra is tasked with scaling up successful organic agricultural practices to meet the demands of large-scale production for Reiter Affiliated Companies.

Innovative Produce works with other Central Coast agricultural operations to fight an on-going labor shortage.

Titan Frozen Fruits breaks into an established industry as the first new strawberry facility built in California in 20 years.

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FARM TO TABLE

| SATURDAY, AUGUST 26, 2017

SANTA MARIA TIMES SPECIAL SECTION

REITER AFFILIATED COMPANIES

FRANK COWAN PHOTOS, CONTRIBUTOR

Peter Navarra, Organic Project Manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, walks between rows of blackberries at a local organic blackberry ranch near Santa Maria.

Bringing large-scale organics to consumers Age-old tactics include bee-keeping, composting, breeding insects JENNIFER BEST

Contributing Writer

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eter Navarra recently travelled down the coast, giddy with the cargo he was carrying to Oxnard: 50 pounds of worms. “These are very special worms, composting worms. They’re $34 a pound. If I break down on the side of the road, I’m going to eat these things,” said the 28-year-old neuroscientist. As organic project manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, Navarra is tasked with scaling up successful organic agricultural practices to meet the demands of large-scale production. “The outlook for 2018 to 2022 is huge for where this could go. There’s this conception that organic means lower yield, more expensive, lower density, but the gap is closing, and closing quickly because so many people are focusing on it right now. People are making it the focus of their careers now to bring the land back to what it can be,” he said. RAC is the largest fresh, multiberry producer in the world and the leading supplier of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries in all of North America. Their berries are marketed under the Reiter and Driscoll’s labels with other family and associated suppliers. “No matter how difficult it is, if that’s what the consumer wants, you make it viable by making the world aware of how important it is. We still grow both (organic and conventional) crops because the market calls for both. We need to look at the bottom line. If organic becomes what the world wants, that’s what makes it viable,” Navarra said. The Houston native started his career in agriculture alongside his college roommate, Phil Adams of Innovative Produce, before making the move to RAC two years ago.

Studying in Mexico

In November 2016, RAC sent him to Baja California to study the organic practices of one of its affiliate farms, bring back a feasibility study, then implement the programs in the U.S. “We’ve been talking about

this for years. There are so many things to be innovated. So much knowledge to share,” Navarra said. “When you combine vermiculture leachates, biocontrols, beekeeping and composting, they’ve ended up with a really successful program. It’s not snake oil. It’s foolish, in my opinion, to make strong pesticidal claims, but when the whole system is working together, you can see it’s vital.” He found an ideal mentor in Dante Gutierrez, who ran hugely successful organic operations in Baja where sourcing materials was a particular challenge. To be cost-effective, Gutierrez had to figure out how to source their own inputs, from predatory mites to fertilizers. They built greenhouses intended not for raising produce, but for breeding and raising beneficial insects which were then turned loose in the fields to fend off destructive pests. They developed a manure and hay composting facility capable of creating 16,000 tons of fertilizer per year. The Baja facility maintained 3,000 of its own beehives to ensure pollinators for crops, and developed its own biotech laboratory for producing their own biocontrol agents: fungi and bacteria they no longer had to purchase and have shipped. There were jobs created — nine beekeepers maintain the hives — and honey as a salable byproduct. Then, there was the vermiculture area: some 3 acres dedicated entirely to the keeping of more than 80 worm beds, 5 feet wide, 50 feet long, full of organic material and worms. “They grow sugar cane, grind it up, compost with manure and whatever green waste they can put through the troughs. The worms love it. They break it down, and when you run water over the top, what runs through, the leachate, that’s taken to the fields. It’s high in density with microfauna, large amounts of bacteria, that inoculate the fields as part of its profile of protecting the rhizosphere and plant roots,” Navarra said. These practices are hardly new. “It’s a learning curve going back to what we used to do before,” Navarra said.

Peter Navarra, Organic Project Manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, gets ready to examine a beehive at a local organic blackberry ranch near Santa Maria.

Peter Navarra, Organic Project Manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, digs into the soil on one of the rows of blackberries at a local organic blackberry ranch near Santa Maria.

Organics not new

Before mass production of fertilizers, farmers used a variety of organic methods to boost agricultural production. In recent years, society has increasingly pushed for a return to the old ways, and away from the use of man-made chemicals on the nation’s food supply. “There’s a call for more organics in the market. There was a time

when everyone was growing organically before synthetic fertilizers. Of course, the replacement of all that nitrogen requires quite a fundamental shift in thinking about the production of agriculture. Does the consumer really care about this conversation, whether it’s organic or not? They care that it’s a clean product. As long as that’s the call from the consumers, the money has to fol-

low,” Navarra said. In addition to learning the practices, Navarra has been working through what he referred to as massive differences in regulation. Mexican farmers and those in other parts of the world don’t have to comply with U.S. regulatory restrictions. “Manure composting on a large scale, like we see in Baja, might not be considered feasible within the U.S. until you figure out a way to create compost sustainably,” he said. He noted that commercial recycling, mandated by a 2012 law, could benefit composting programs. “If municipalities can’t handle all the waste coming to them, something has to be done with the green waste. Carbon credits become a real thing,” Navarra said. RAC facilities have already begun their own substrate program which combines shredded plant material from expired fields with coconut core to feed worm beds, then run the leachate back into the soil. The program is already in place in Oxnard, with expansion planned for acreage in Watsonville and eventually Santa Maria Valley.

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“No matter how difficult it is, if that’s what the consumer wants, you make it viable by making the world aware of how important it is.” Peter Navarra, Reiter Affiliated Companies

Bee-keeping in-house

Rather than continuing to depend upon contracted beekeepers whose schedules didn’t always fit peak pollination timing, Navarra keeps 200 hives with plans to expand to 2,000 hives next year. “When we rent hives, we compete with the almonds and they pay a lot for bees. In February and March, the almonds and the berries are coming into peak pollination for early summer harvest. If we don’t have the bees on time, that’s a big deal,” Navarra explained. Ultimately, he’d like to see RAC running 5,000 to 6,000 of its own hives to support agricultural production throughout its affiliated fields. “Bee keeping is an amazing field to work in. It’s been a big challenge over the last decade. In the next 10 years, we have a pretty big upside with more awareness coming to honeybees specifically. Bee practices have improved. Genetics are improving. Our company is excited about the in-house beekeeping part of the business,” he said. Navarra, full of youthful vigor, passion for his field, and a lively sense of humor, seems ideal for the multi-faceted job. “I run from Watsonville to Oxnard weekly. Bee keeping is a dirty, laborious business. Some days I spend some time in the lab, some time digging with worms, and then giving presentations. It’s like running with a plate of spaghetti and not having anything fall off,” Navarra said. But it’s all just work about which he’s passionate. “My mentors in Mexico taught me it’s just work. If you don’t want to just go home at the end of the day and watch TV, if you want to focus on saving the world and helping the ecosystem become healthier, then that’s what you’ll do,” Navarra said.

ABOVE: Peter Navarra, Organic Project Manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, checks a product from a beehive at a local organic blackberry ranch near Santa Maria. LEFT: Peter Navarra, Organic Project Manager for Reiter Affiliated Companies, checks a hive at a local organic blackberry ranch near Santa Maria.

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| SATURDAY, AUGUST 26, 2017

FARM TO TABLE

SANTA MARIA TIMES SPECIAL SECTION

INNOVATIVE PRODUCE

Fighting labor shortage with visas, technology JENNIFER BEST

Contributing Writer

P

esticides, herbicides, organics and technology are all hot topics in the agriculture community, but labor issues, particularly a lack of available workers, are the chief concerns this year for large-scale operations on the Central Coast. “Labor is pretty much front and center right now. I was just talking to our general manager about H-2A workers we’re trying to bring in, but they’ve been delayed since May 1,” said Philip Adam, operations manager at Santa Maria-based Innovative Produce. The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program grants temporary visas to non-citizen workers specifically employed in agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 160,084 H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Visas have been certified nationwide. At 18,886, Georgia received the greatest percentage of those visas. California came in fifth at 12,292 behind North Carolina, Florida and Washington. Louisiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan, and South Carolina rounded out the top 10. The temporary work visas are granted when, among other things, employers can “demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work,” according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In the case of field work, farmers say that point is simple. “It’s hard work most of all. No one wants to do it. Most Americans don’t want to cut lettuce. That’s the reality of the situation. But there are a lot of people in Mexico that would love to cut lettuce. Having that influx of labor drives our economy in Santa Maria,” Adam said. Workers granted the H-2A visa may remain in the United States for up to three years before they are required to return to their home country. They may bring their spouses and children, but spouse visas preclude them from working. H-2A visa holders must leave the U.S. after three years, but may reapply for temporary worker status again after three months away. “H-2A workers are going to be the big solution for the foreseeable and near future. We’re trying to find ways to sustainably house, bring in, and train these workers to bring them into the community and add a lot to it,” Adam said.

Generations of farming

The seventh-generation Santa Maria Valley farmer works with his father, Innovative Produce owner George Adam, other family members and a host of employees to cultivate 1,800 acres of conventionally and organically grown fruits and vegetables including lettuces, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cilantro, Brussels sprouts, kale, strawberries, blackberries, peppers and squash. “We do everything we can to make the work as easy as possible. Working in the fields isn’t what it was 40 years ago. You’re not out there for hours with no shade or water or rest. If you’re not following the rules, you’re not in business anymore,” Philip said. Tending to the fields, picking produce, packing boxes may seem to be a job anyone could fill, even teenagers seeking first employment or some extra income, but most Americans lack an interest in such work. “Americans have been driven away from this kind of work. Our whole system is designed to drive people away from those jobs. You’re told you need to go to school so you don’t have to work in the fields. Why is this a surprise to everyone? It’s not just our industry. It’s automotive, construction. Not as many people want to do that work any more. So we do what we can to bring more people to do the work, and they’re the best people, great people, really hard working, salt-of-the-earth great people. We definitely should do whatever we can so they can make the most money possible and lead a good, productive life,”

FRANK COWAN PHOTOS, CONTRIBUTOR

A worker cuts stocks of Brussels sprouts off at the base. The sprouts then are carried to a machine that will separate the sprouts from the stalk at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria.

A worker carries several stocks of Brussels sprouts to a machine that will separate the sprouts from the stalk at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria.

A crew of about 10 workers checks Brussels sprouts before a machine sorts them by size. Workers then box the vegetable on a scale at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria.

A work crew checks Brussels sprouts as they come out of a fast-moving machine at Innovative Produce, west of Santa Maria.

Harvest Supervisor Rob Downy, left, watches as a crew checks Brussels sprouts as they come down a conveyer at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria.

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SANTA MARIA TIMES SPECIAL SECTION

SATURDAY, AUGUST 26, 2017 |

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TITAN FROZEN FRUITS

Cultivating success in Santa Maria MATHEW BURCIAGA

mburciaga@leecentralcoastnews.com

FRANK COWAN PHOTOS, CONTRIBUTOR

A worker carries several stocks of Brussels sprouts to a machine that will separate the sprouts from the stalk at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria. Philip said. Students and other part-time or seasonal workers can’t fill the need on the Central Coast where growing seasons extend year round. “California agriculture is very different from agriculture in other parts of the country because our productivity rates, because our climate and soils are so much better than other places in the country. That security our climate gives us allows us to make big investments with some certainty,” Philip said.

Technology a possible solution Investment in technology has further advanced California farmers, and may ultimately serve as a solution to the worker shortage. “To ease the labor crunch, we’re doing everything we can to automate, from weeding to thinning. You’ll see limited thinning crews in the next five years. A lot of those jobs are going to be replaced by machine,” Philip said. Meanwhile, Innovative Produce has leveraged its most experienced workers to turn out both higher production through the incentive of piece-work. The result has been greater production in spite of limited employees, and increased pay for the workers. “Instead of paying by the hour, we pay by the carton. It’s worked

A crew member sets a box on a scale as Brussels sprouts, sorted by size, come off a fast-moving machine at Innovative Produce in a field west of Santa Maria. out really well. It’s given a lot of people a chance to make a lot more money in a shorter amount of time. It’s allowed us to control costs,” Philip said.

Piece-work an incentive

Some of Innovative Produce’s better crews now paid by the carton can turn out 1.6 to 1.7 times the amount of product as they did when they worked for hourly pay. They are also earning more, upward of $20 per hour, than the H-2A minimum wage of $12.57 per hour.

“It’s really just a marginal cost/benefit decision,” Philip explained. He sees farmers making tough decisions about employment in the future as well. “If minimum wage goes to $15 and 9-hour days, and we have to go to overtime to complete the work, that makes the machines more attractive. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The tougher rules that are in place on California farmers have forced us to innovate a lot more than other places in the country,” he said. Some of the regulation does put California farmers at a disadvantage, he added. “We do compete with places like Mexico which is becoming more and more of a threat because you can still produce there, and they don’t have the same rules we do,” Philip said. Precision agriculture has become a keystone to successful operations. “We’re getting everything dialed in with fertilizers and water application. Planting technology has gotten better. Technology really is driving progress in our industry now. Those that aren’t taking advantage of technology aren’t going to last. If you don’t have great production, don’t have great piecework setting all your ducks in a row from beginning to end, you’re not doing business in California agriculture in the future,” Adam said.

When childhood friends Jon Larsen, Quinn Johnson and Eric Duyck opened Titan Frozen Fruits in May 2014, the trio took a gamble in hopes of breaking into an established industry. “This is the first new strawberry facility that’s been built in California in 20 years,” said Larsen, the president of Titan. According to Larsen, most frozen food companies often maintain a network of processors and suppliers, which left him guardedly optimistic about Titan’s ability to compete with other established processors. “When we decided to put together Titan and made the big investment, we had a pretty aggressive growth model. We had a fiveyear plan that should have taken us through the first 60 months of the business; we ran out of pages [during] month 30,” Larsen said. “I thought it would take us years to be the No. 2 supplier of fruit [for some companies,]” he added, “but the support we had exceeded our expectations.” Growing up in Oregon, the trio spent their summers during high school and college working at a processing plant similar to Titan. While Larsen said he never anticipated a career in frozen food processing, all three kept in contact and reunited to form Titan. Their bond is what Larsen said influences Titan’s “family-type” atmosphere, and drives the technological innovation that contributes to company success. Managers and middlemen often work remotely or from the field, allowing employees to contribute to company success without forcing relocation or disrupting life at home. “All of us work very hard but we

also go to great lengths to make sure everybody has enough time to be available with their family,” he said. “We’re very accommodating from that standpoint — we allow people to be where they need to be personally [while remaining] a key part of the company. We really leverage the technology that’s out there today.” Completed in 2014, Titan operates a 50,000-square-foot processing facility on west La Brea Avenue in Santa Maria, with 200,000 square feet of cold storage in a facility next door that is managed by Lineage Logistics. Operated in partnership, the close proximity of the both facilities allows Titan to ensure their products are packaged under ideal conditions to maintain maximum integrity and nutrition of their frozen product. “We put in a state-of-the-art quick freeze unit that was built in Sweden. Not only does it handle a lot of volume, but it freezes the product so fast,” Larsen said. “Everything we pack is at an ambient or fresh temperature when we’re done with it, and it immediately goes into the cold storage for freezing. The faster you freeze the product,” he explained, “the more you maintain the nutrients, color and flavor.” As Titan completes their fourth harvest season, Larsen said the company anticipates processing 100 million pounds of strawberries. He credits the company’s continued success to their growers, suppliers and the City of Santa Maria. “[Santa Maria] is where the best growers and best growing region is, and the local government is [very supportive] of us,” he said. “We couldn’t have done this without them.”

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SANTA MARIA SPECIAL SECTION1

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