These days, we as consumers are incredibly lucky to have the convenience of fresh organic greens year-round. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, this convenience is something that Earthbound Farm helped pioneer. But because they are now so readily available, it’s easy to lose sight of everything that goes into getting those beautiful greens on produce shelves.
In an effort to help bring you closer to your food, and the people at Earthbound Farm who work so hard every day to bring it to you, we occasionally share stories about the journey from root to leaf and field to fork.
Today, we explore the journey of romaine hearts. Why romaine hearts? Because it is a particularly manual process, which you’d probably never guess when you reach for the convenient, perfectly trimmed and delicious 3-pack in the market.
John McKeon (JM) – once our head of supply and now our Director of Organic Integrity – spoke to us about the fascinating world of romaine hearts.
Q: How is romaine lettuce planted and cultivated?
JM: How we plant romaine varies based on a few factors: primarily, the grower preference (transplants or direct seeding), seasonal timing (spring and fall plantings) and soil and water conditions on a given ranch. All planting is essentially mechanized by using a direct seeder or a transplanter. Both pieces of equipment are attached to the back of a tractor and driven across beds intended for planting. We direct seed on ranches where we do not anticipate issues with germination, field conditions or weather. We transplant little romaine plants in areas where weeds can out-grow crops and limit growth/yields; soil type is heavy and may not allow for germinated seeds to break through soil; or early or late in the season to ensure a good stand of crops for seasonal rotation.
Check out this video from one of our growers about how we cultivate romaine hearts.
Q: Where are romaine hearts grown and when?
JM: We grow romaine hearts year-round. From mid-April to mid-November, we grow romaine in California from Gilroy to San Ardo in the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys. From late October to April, we grow in the Imperial Valley of California, Sonora (Mexico), and Arizona.
Q: What are the biggest benefits and challenges to growing romaine versus other greens?
JM: Romaine is a relatively easy crop to grow. It is a well-developed head lettuce with a history of production in the Salinas area, so it has adapted to local growing conditions. The biggest risk with romaine, compared to our baby leaf items, is that it simply grows in the fields longer, which means it is exposed to potential growing issues for a longer period of time – e.g. pests, disease, weather damage, etc.
Q: How long does it take for romaine hearts to grow from planting to harvest?
JM: Ultimately, Mother Nature decides. The days from planting to harvest vary seasonally, but the average is from 65-70 days when it’s warm, to 90-95 days when it’s cool.
Q: Why must romaine hearts be hand-harvested whereas baby greens are harvested mechanically?
JM: Romaine is a head lettuce, so it is hand-harvested and packed in the field. This is necessary for quality control and precision of cutting a heart out of a full-sized head of lettuce. While baby greens can be mowed, there is no machine that can replace the human elements of experience and decision-making to select the romaine that meets our field-cut specifications.
Q: Why do we sell romaine hearts versus the whole head of romaine? And why do they come in 3-packs?
JM: People prefer hearts. This is likely driven by the fact that hearts are well protected, cleaner and have more tender leaves. The outer wrapper leaves of romaine can get damaged post-harvest and detract from the appearance. The three-pack is really a factor of ideal shipping weight.
Q: Briefly describe the harvest and packaging process that takes place in the field.
JM: Harvesting romaine hearts is a labor-intensive process, which is done from a harvest machine, pictured below. It is from this central hub that crews (usually made up of 25-35 people) harvest and pack the romaine. Product is cut from the field by harvesters and placed on the first tier of the harvest machine. The hearts are rinsed (not washed) and the product is bagged. From there, the baggers place the product on the next tier to be sealed and packed into carton, carton is closed, conveyed to a flatbed trailer and palletized.
Q: Are romaine hearts pre-washed?
JM: No. Given their format, field-packed products such as romaine hearts are not “ready-to-eat” like our loose baby greens, which are washed in our manufacturing facility. They need to be washed or cooked prior to consumption.
Q: What happens to the romaine hearts after they are loaded onto the truck?
JM: Once the trailer is full or an order is filled, the flatbed is moved off the field and delivered to our coolers for cooling, inspection for quality and safety, after which time it’s received into inventory and made available for sales.
Q: What happens to the outer leaves of the romaine that are left behind when the heart is removed?
JM: Fortunately, as organic farmers, we know how to take what’s left behind and reuse it to keep our soils healthy. After a harvest, we leave the excess greens right where they land in the field, so they start to deteriorate on the top of the soil bed. Then, when the crew is done harvesting the field, we run tractors through and mix it all back in, which gives our soil more organic matter, naturally. This is an important part of how we continue to build the fertility and structure of our soils, which is critical to growing the highest quality produce.