Recently we decided to do an experiment to find out what happens when you take a group of pizza managers used to working late nights down to California farm country and make them get up early. While we didn’t quite get up at the rooster’s crow, we all set the alarm much earlier than usual and hit the day with plenty of caffeine-aided gusto. The result was a greater appreciation of what California farmers and canners go through and a closer relationship with our producers.
Our friend Jim Neil from JG Neil & Co. escorted us down to Sacramento to see the farms and canneries in full swing. We brought Fremont General Manager Steve Crotts, Old Bellevue General Manager Josh Frost, Madison General Manager Jeff Maneval, Field Manager Brandon Steele, Director of Operations John Clifford and Vice President of Operations Jeff Woodruff.
The first stop on our farm tour was to see the tomato harvest with Frank Muller, of Joe Muller and Sons. Their company has over 10,000 acres for various crops and tomato plants make up a significant portion of that land. In addition to his normal duties, Frank is also chairman of the Pacific Coast Producers where the tomatoes are canned. What struck us was how fast and efficient the harvest is. GPS-guided trucks run down the rows of tomatoes, pulling up the entire plant. Electronic sorters help sift through everything that isn’t a red tomato. There are workers helping sort out any poor-quality tomatoes before they get loaded onto gondolas being driven alongside. The process is remarkably fast and efficient – there are 50,000 tons of tomatoes leaving the fields every 15 minutes or so.
The tomatoes grown for our sauce are much thicker than the average tomato and stand up to the harvest. And, since Pacific Coast Producers has pushed for environmental sustainability, they’re the “greenest” tomatoes around. Drip irrigation, nitrogen audits, and GPS technology have enabled them to greatly reduce water and chemical use and to farm as efficiently as possible.
The Pacific Coast Producers canning facility sparked comparisons to Disneyland and Willy Wonka’s factory. After arriving and being inspected and graded, the tomatoes are floated around a path that continues to kick out anything other than a red, ripe tomato. Once through their log ride they are taken up conveyors into machines that remove the skins and send them in for processing. Be it whole, sliced, crushed, puréed, paste, or whatever other iteration of canned tomato you can think of, the tomatoes are ferried though a non-stop, amazingly efficient process. To the outsider, it might look like chaos, but the plant is a well-oiled machine. Due to the seasonality of the tomatoes, the plant does all of its work from July through September. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, those tomatoes are constantly arriving and journeying through.
We were pleasantly surprised by how short the time is between harvest and packing. The farm we visited is a 10-minute drive from the canning facility. In as little as 45 minutes, these tomatoes go from vine to sealed can. This speed sets Pacific Coast Producers apart – they can fresher tomatoes than anyone else, lending better flavor and quality. It’s a difference that you can taste for yourself next time you sink your teeth into one of our pizzas.
Check back next week as we head to the orchards to discover how our olives go from farm to pizza.