Thursday, July 05, 2007

Growing Bagged Salad, Instead of Head Lettuce?

Consumers are becoming more and more health conscious. Health and well being are uppermost on people’s minds, that is when they’re not fretting about climate change. Well being is the new buzzword that has replaced fitness.

You’d think that by growing and harvesting hundreds of heads of lettuce and pak choi each and every day, Chuck and I are on the cutting edge of the health conscious market. Not to mention the thousands of herbs that come out of our fourth greenhouse, the one that Bjorn helped to build.

Chuck suggested contacting a business guru to make sure that our operation meets the changing needs of our customers. The efficiency expert-looking individual with a buzz-cut and buttoned-down shirt collar finally sat down with us, after spending a week studying our four greenhouses and our methods of conducting business.

“You’re absolutely right in growing health-conscious foods,” he began. His name is Wallace, which I presume is his last name. That’s how he introduced himself. “But you’re ignoring the latest buying habits of consumers who have less and less time to feed themselves.”

Wallace informed us in no uncertain terms that whereas people want to eat healthy, their penchant for fast food has not diminished. Therefore, instead of buying heads of lettuce, which involves making the salad yourself, more and more people are grabbing a bag of salad off the supermarket shelf.

Prudent companies, especially the large ones, have anticipated this trend and they’ve switched from growing heads of lettuce hydroponically, to harvesting the leaves of the lettuce and allowing the plant to grow more leaves.

Then, as a value added measure, they triple-wash the lettuce leaves and cut them up into small pieces. By combining different varieties of lettuce with some herbs, or even radishes and shredded carrots, they create 150 gram packages of ready-made salads which can be sold for triple the price of a head of lettuce.

He suggested switching our Boston and Specialty Lettuce Operations to this multiple-harvesting model, then combine our herbs with the lettuce to create interesting salads. “I don’t know how the pak choi fits into this, but you might want to switch that greenhouse into growing Iceberg Head Lettuce, which is still a favorite of American consumers,” concluded Wallace.

After he left, Chuck and I had a few heated discussions about his proposal. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was my position. “We can’t ignore the changing face of the marketplace,” iterated Chuck.

I figured out how to bring him over to my side. By looking at the figures as to how much changing our entire operation would cost, I was sure he would see it my way and give us the green light to continue with the tried and true.

“We have loyal customers,” I reminded Chuck, ”and our orders for the three varieties of Lettuce, the Pak Choi, and the Herbs are well into 2008. Finding new customers for bagged salad would require market research and hiring some more sales people.”

“Besides, Wallace admitted that the processing operation would be labor-intensive, so our costs for wages would skyrocket,” said I. “Also, buying brand new machinery to process our produce would put us back into a debt position, just when we’re within sight of the end of red ink for a while.”

Chuck pointed out that by harvesting the leaves of each head of lettuce three or four times, we would reduce our costs by not having to start so many plants each and every day. “Yeah, but it would stop the flow of our assembly line type of operation,” I retorted. "You can’t stop young lettuce from growing, so there would be a logjam at the harvest end of the operation.”

He suggested that by using VHO, Very High Output, we could keep our lettuce in the vegetative stage for an extended period. “We would still use Micro and Grow and Sensi Cal Mg Mix Grow and all the other additives, supplements, and root colonizers that we use now,” he said.

These Advanced Nutrients products have been largely responsible for the success of our operation. Grandma Enggy’s Humic and Fulvic Acid, which recreate the rich, black, fertile humus-like environment that our forebears used to grow their food in--in a hydroponic setting, guarantee that our synthetic basic ferts are tempered with organic goodness.

I don’t want to mess all that up, just because a business advisor with a brush-cut says that we should do things differently. “Who’s to say that the older the lettuce gets, the quality of the leaves will remain high,” I asked Chuck, rhetorically.” Also, older lettuce is more prone to disease, is it not?”

“You really don’t want to do this?” asked Chuck. He finally caught on, I thought. “How can we guarantee that the bagged lettuce will stay fresh?” I wanted to know.

“The processing takes place in a temperature-controlled environment, from harvest to cutting to bagging to transport, all the way to the customer. The processing room temp is kept at 5° C (41° F) and the product is carried in refrigerated delivery trucks to the customers.”

“The cost of air conditioning and refrigeration has to be factored in,” I said. “I know that we keep the temp of our packing rooms down low even now, but by being able to pack the heads of lettuce in ice, we save on the air conditioning,” I added.

The salad leaves are placed in baskets and washed three times in water that has an additive designed for washing vegetables. Then an automated Flume takes over and washes the lettuce leaves again in almost freezing water (1-2° C) after which a draining rack and a centrifuge are used to get rid of the water.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is used to pack the salad into a plastic bag. The machine removes most of the air from the bag and replaces it with food-grade Nitrogen, before sealing it. The environment in the bag is 95% Nitrogen and 5% Oxygen, and the bags are permeable for gas exchange.

“There you go,” I jumped in, “don’t you think our customers would object to having their salads bagged this way?” I asked, but Chuck countered with stats to prove that sales of bagged salads are increasing all over the developed world.

So we took a survey of our customers and the majority said that they would prefer to continue buying entire heads of lettuce, rather than pre-packaged salads, since they were suspicious of how long the bagged salads have been on the shelf. With our hundreds of heads of lettuce delivered daily to stores in our region, our customers are assured that they were harvested in the morning of the same day.

Thanks to Barricade, Scorpion Juice, and Protector, our Lettuce-Pak Choi-and Herb growing operation is relatively pest and disease free. By going from seed to harvest in 35 days, we only deal with young lettuce, as opposed to older, disease-prone plants, which is the most persuasive argument against switching to a bagged-salad operation.

posted by silvio @ 11:31 PM   0 comments


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