2000s Archive

Politics of the Plate: Greens of Wrath

continued (page 2 of 4)

Once full, the truck trundles to Earthbound’s San Juan Bautista plant, where bacterial contamination clearly has been declared public enemy number one. When I visit, I am asked to remove my watch and jewelry. After slipping on a hairnet, I slosh through a shoe bath of disinfectant with my hands held over little troughs equipped with miniature showerheads. Inside, I shiver in the 36-degree breeze. Workers in lab coats and white caps pluck samples from pallets with tweezers to test them for pathogens. The greens are warehoused for 12 hours until they receive a clean bill of health. Only then are they released into the processing area to be washed in a chlorine and citric-acid bath and dried in what look like giant salad spinners. Automatically measured into plastic bags or “clamshells,” the greens are tested a second time. If they pass muster again, they are loaded into refrigerated trucks for journeys of one to five days, depending on their destination.

In the two years following the outbreak, Earthbound’s inspectors caught 90 contaminated loads of greens at the first test stage. They intercepted another two at the secondary inspection. And there have been no further E. coli outbreaks caused by greens. Earthbound’s solution—concentrate on conditions inside the packing plant and abide by the marketing agreement in its fields—seems to be working. But other producers have adopted a more extreme view of the new regulations and initiated what amounts to a scorched-earth policy. In the name of food safety, they have scraped 30-foot-wide borders of bare dirt around the edges of fields, set up poison-bait stations for ground squirrels and mice, installed eight-foot-high fences to exclude deer and other wildlife, ripped vegetation from creeks and ditches, and drained ponds and lakes or treated them with chemicals that kill every living thing in them. Creeks flowing into the Salinas River run brown with silty water polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Piles of bleached, bonelike tree trunks and roots have replaced wooded groves.

Noting that Earthbound has achieved its success without resorting to such devastating measures, or anything close to them, Will Daniels, the company’s vice president of quality, food safety, and organic integrity, is of the opinion that some growers are overreacting. “Removal of wildlife habitat runs counter to the tenets of organic farming,” he says.

Unfortunately, despite its size, Earthbound is a small player in the $2.6 billion fresh-cut salad business, accounting for less than 5 percent of total sales. A survey released by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County showed that 89 percent of the Central Coast growers responding to the survey had taken at least one measure to discourage or eliminate wildlife from their cropped areas.

Some concerned Californians are trying to stop the rampant destruction. Foremost among them is Jo Ann Baumgartner, the head of a conservation group called the Wild Farm Alliance. I first met her one morning last May, at the Watsonville Airport. With long, straight, gray-blond hair, Baumgartner still looks a bit like the hippie farmer she once was. But there’s nothing laid-back about her campaign to preserve the Salinas Valley and its environs. A few weeks earlier, while driving along a freeway, Baumgartner had seen a bulldozer working near a small lake ten miles south of Salinas. Concerned, she asked pilot Saul Chaikin (of Lighthawk, a volunteer environmental aviation organization) to fly down with me and snap a few aerial pictures.

From the air, the Salinas Valley, divided into perfect rectangles of brown and green, looks as though it has been laid out by a geometrician. In the aerial photographs Baumgartner had given us before our flight, the lake was bordered by an unmistakable claw-shaped fringe of trees. It should have stood out as a rare insult to uniformity. But on the first pass, we couldn’t find it. Chaikin banked and dropped a little lower. Then we saw it: a dark brown pattern against the sand-colored earth of a newly plowed field. The lake—a refuge for waterfowl, deer, squirrels, and, possibly, threatened California red-legged frogs; a sight so rare and aesthetically striking that local artists set up their easels on the freeway’s edge—was gone. Plowed under.

Early the next morning, Baumgartner called to say that she had persuaded a farmer who insisted on anonymity to talk to me about the pressure he was getting from packers. I met Baumgartner in a Denny’s parking lot on the outskirts of Salinas, and we drove south along secondary roads. The circuitous journey ensured that I could never retrace the route.

“I’m afraid of retaliation from the large buyers that I have to sell to,” said the farmer, a forty-something dark-haired man, looking at me nervously. “There are plenty of growers who are ready and willing to clear away everything.” He nodded toward a neighbor’s field, where an earthen ditch had eroded away one side of an access road. “Buyers don’t come right out and order you to do this or that. It’s more subtle: ‘We can’t buy crops that are grown within so many feet of that weedy waterway.’ And because the handler sells to a number of retailers, you have to conform to the strictest common denominator.”

So far, this farmer, who works several hundred acres, has resisted. His drainage ditches are full of native plants. “One auditor suggested I spray them with herbicides—and he was an organic auditor.” He pointed to a hip-high, black rubber fence between his field and a ditch. “They call it a food safety barrier. I call it a frog fence. Frogs don’t carry E. coli.” Even with the barrier, his buyer refused to take greens grown within 50 feet of the vegetated areas, so a border of perfectly good spinach was left standing. “The idea of the organic farming movement is to farm in harmony with nature. If that’s not happening, then the consumers are being misled,” he said.

Subscribe to Gourmet