Essay: Connecting the dots between farm and plate

A tractor sits idle on Eric Schreiner's family farm. Schreiner Farms grows tomatoes for The Morning Star Company, which produces products for companies like Campbell's and Heinz. (Brigit Kenney/Eckerd College)

Growing up in an area that represented the perfect mix of urban and rural, I thought I had a pretty accurate picture of what farming was and where food comes from. I have been to many places that appear similar to Woodland, California, which is a city I visited with a group of students that explored food waste from the manufacturer's perspective.

The morning of my arrival, as we entered the highway on the way to our first destination, I saw the familiar green exit signs with white lettering, the billboards that displayed a plethora of advertisements for local companies, and miles and miles of concrete road ahead of us. As we exited the highway, I began to realize it wasn’t quite as familiar as I had initially thought.

We passed colorful, expansive orchards, ones like I had never seen before; although, it is hard to tell what is growing on the trees when you pass thousands of them at 50 miles per hour. I asked one of the drivers what kind of trees were on the left, expecting to hear some kind of fruit — turns out, they were almond trees.

I was dumbfounded to say the least. Not only did I suddenly realize how little I knew about food, but also how little I actually thought about it. I had no idea that almonds even grew on trees, and never had the impulse to wonder where they came from either. It’s funny because I love almonds; salted, covered in rich, milk chocolate, plain, or even as a milk substitute for my cereal or coffee.

This realization made me question everything. Had I ever seen an almond tree before and just not realized? Why am I so quick to judge a place? My eyes were opened and I understood that Woodland, California, located smack dab in the middle of — yes — Yolo County, is like no place I had ever seen before this trip.

I welcomed this perfect wake up call and was thankful that it happened at the beginning of the trip. It helped me understand that things can be equally similar and different, and that nothing can be understood from just a surface view.

My thoughts were interrupted as we arrived at The Morning Star Company — a tomato processing plant. They handed us goggles, hard hats, and asked for us to remove any jewelry. I entered this facility with no knowledge of what tomato processing was, and once again came to the realization that I have never thought about it much before — a product of growing up in pre-packaged, pre-processed America. This time, I tried not to make any assumptions.

Brigit Kenney at The Morning Star Company
We weren't allowed to photograph the inside of The Morning Star Company plant, mostly for safety reasons but also because of proprietary business information we may see. Here we get a briefing before entering, after putting on our safety equipment. (Planet Forward)

One of the students pointed out that she loves the smell of tomatoes. I tried to imagine what I thought tomatoes smelled like, before taking a big breath in through my nose. To my surprise, tomatoes did have a very distinct smell, and it was pretty overwhelming at first. It is now also a smell I will never forget. Gigantic trucks, each towing two industrial sized dumpster-like things, piled high with red, orange, and even green tomatoes, filed into the production plant.

Even after a full tour of the plant, I could hardly picture just how huge and complex this operation was — from farmers, harvesters, and truck drivers, to quality check or teams who work in the offices keeping track of all the transportation, temperatures and each machine. The operations at the plant go nonstop, 24 hours a day, for about three months on end. I had never considered how much human energy, time, and money goes into the operation in order to supply the demand for things such as packaged tomato sauce that we use on spaghetti or pizza whenever we want it.

The tour guide informed us that the time it takes for the tomatoes to be harvested, inspected, and processed is approximately one hour. One hour from farm to finished: and ready to be sent to companies like Campbell’s or Heinz. I also was surprised at the company's willingness to give students a complete tour of their operations and answer all of our questions. The operation is almost completely zero-waste; any parts of the tomato not suitable for processing are used for animal feed or composting. For certain products, they can use the yellow or green tomatoes depending on what the company is and the demand they are processing it for.

A field at Schreiner Farms
One tomato supplier for Morning Star is Schreiner Farms, our next stop. (Brigit Kenney/Eckerd College)

After the tomato processing plant, we continue to work backward through the journey our produce takes on the way to groceries and markets. Next, we visited Schreiner Farms, which grows the tomatoes for Morning Star, along with other crops for other companies. The farmer, Eric Schreiner, seemed excited to talk about his work and answer our questions. With us was a seed sales representative, who had set up a meeting with the farmer. They started the meeting with a little small talk, and delved further into seeds, changing prices, competitors, and many other things that take part in making the production succeed.

Schreiner is a third generation farmer, trying and seemingly succeeding at keeping up with the competitive and risky business of growing crops. He has to stay on top of the technological advances happening in the farming industry in order to make his work as efficient and effective as possible. He showed us his recent investments, which included a big harvester with sorting technology, and a scary looking machine that removes old drip tape. He explained that farming today is nothing like what the generations before him had done.

Eric Schreiner of Schreiner Farms explains the harvester
Third-generation farmer Eric Schreiner of Schreiner Farms explains the tomato harvester. (Brigit Kenney/Eckerd College)

Schreiner Farms has seen three generations of extensive change and adaptation in the agricultural sector of this nation’s economy. Before this trip, I had no idea how complex and overwhelming the agriculture industry had become. The technology farmers use today is more advanced than I could have ever imagined; including things such as GPS navigation, drones, and radars that can detect disease-ridden plants in the densest fields, or even biologically/genetically engineered seeds that can withstand the toughest cycles of nature.

The use of engineering and technology in agriculture is needed in order to keep up with population growth, increasing hunger, and decreasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. If this kind of technology was implemented within agriculture, it would be simply an adaption to the ever-changing world around us.

Tomato harvester in the field
Here's the tomato harvester in the field, where we got to see it in action. It's loud, and despite its slow speed, tomatoes fly through it at an impressive pace. (Brigit Kenney/Eckerd College)

Farmers like Schreiner, who dedicate their life to the efficient and sustainable production of the nation’s food are undeniably necessary. Farming is universal, but also communal. As consumers, we need to further educate ourselves on the complexity of the networks that provide simple things such as almonds or tomatoes. By understanding the time, effort, and labor it takes to produce a farm-to-table item, it allows us as consumers to reconnect with our food and therefore creating a level of appreciation and respect we never would have perceived before. To put it simply, wasting these products is a waste of this effort.

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