Friday, March 7, 2014

California Farm Tour and a California Mexican Rice Bowl

California Mexican Rice Bowl

"Do you know where these vegetables come from?" A question I remember asking my kids years ago as we wandered the grocery store.  

"From the, uh, the vegetable store...?", was always their questioning answer.

The vegetable store indeed.  But where is that vegetable store?  Or the fruit store for that matter?

Just last week I received the answer to those questions as I participated in a behind the scenes tour of various farms in Southern California's Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  As guests of the California Farm Water Coalition, fellow bloggers Priscilla (She's Cookin'), Barbara (Barbara Cooks) and Jeanne (The Jolly Tomato),  and I visited local farms growing produce making up some 60% of our nation's winter supply.

Located in the very south of Southern California, the Imperial Valley boasts mild winter temperatures making it the perfect growing venue for winter vegetables including spinach, various types of lettuce, carrots, onions and broccoli, among numerous other varieties.

Every drop counts...
However, being part of a desert brings to the forefront the issue of an average 3 inches of rain per year, nowhere near enough water to grow crops to fill local packing plants with the necessary produce to supply much of the nation's food needs.  And with current California drought conditions making matters even worse, farms are doing everything in their power to irrigate crops as efficiently as possible.

While farming may seem like "big business", most of the farms in the valleys are still family owned, and many of these families have been farming their lands for generations.  Water scarcity in recent years however, has some farmers allowing their lands to go fallow for seasons, some seasons stretching into years.

The Faces of Farming
The Faces of Farming

Our tour brought us to local farmers working hard to keep their crops fully watered while staying up to date on the most efficient irrigation standards for each particular crop.  From sprinklers to drip lines, the precious water flowing from the Colorado River to the valley's irrigation canals is used at maximum efficiency.  (Read more about our tour from the Imperial Valley Press)

LaBrucherie Spinach Field
LaBrucherie Spinach Field
J.P. LaBrucherie, a fourth generation farmer with LaBrucherie Produce, brought our team of bloggers to one of his El Centro spinach fields and took us through the life of a spinach seed from planting to packaging.  Beginning as one of 3.5 million seeds in an acre, a spinach plant takes some 30-45 days to harvest.  Irrigated with sprinklers, these plants thrive in the local warm winter climate. 

While we missed the actual harvest, J.P. described the scene with a machine slicing the tender leaves from the plant, essentially doing what needed a field of people in the past.  The plant is then left to re-grow, but as the remaining leaves may be somewhat damaged from the initial cutting and simply not as pretty as the first round, these leaves are then cut for frozen or chopped packaging.

As an side interesting note... have you ever noticed those slender leaves in your spinach bag?  I've always wondered if they were another plant somehow mixed in by accident, however they are actually the first little leaves to emerge from the spinach sprout.  Same plant, simply a different shape.

LaBrucherie Romaine Lettuce
Moving on to lettuce, J.P. brought our team to his iceberg and romaine fields.  Entering the field the scent of fresh salad wafted around us as J.P. plucked heads from the ground, broke off the root end and and served up romaine crisper than any I've ever tasted.  Beautiful specimens are actually harvested by hand and packed right there at the field, a process I'd love to see in person one day.

Irrigated by furrows, the fields are tilted ever so slightly to encourage the water to flow from one end to another while keeping the produce dry and the roots wet.

Making our way toward the Coachella Valley, our next stop brought the heavenly scent of citrus blossoms as Dennis Jensen, of Seaview Packing, took us through lemon and orange groves.  With the groves nearing the end of the picking season new growth sprouted from the freshly manicured, squared off trees, and the fragrant blossoms brought the beginning of next year's crop to life.

Lemon Blossom
Lemon... 2015!
Driving through the citrus grove our van broke out into a tropical palm filled paradise and we soon discovered "the date store".  Apparently I'm the last person to know that the gorgeous "Date Palm" is actually where dates come from.  Taking us through the life cycle of a date, Mr. Jensen explained the laborious process of rising into the spiky (I've heard the spikes can puncture car tires) trees some 8 times in a season to prune, pollinate, pick, etc.

Deglet Noor Date Garden
Growing the popular Medjool and Deglet Noor (meaning Tree of Light) varieties, the palms provide a beautiful Garden (did you know a Date "Grove" is properly called a Date "Garden"?) and have piqued my interest in dates.  More on that in the weeks to come...

Moving on to the orange section of the farm, workers worked at picking the last of the beautiful Valencias from the heavily laden trees.

With a family-like familiarity, Mr. Jensen greeted workers with smiles and jolly laughs, and workers spoke with thankfulness and appreciation for the opportunities on this farm.  One woman in particular spoke how Mr. Jensen had passed his knowledge of the industry to her as they worked together and she now works in management at an adjacent farm.  Her contagious laugh had us all smiling right along with her.

Taking us through the groves Mr. Jensen passed out bags giving us the opportunity to pick and pack our own oranges showing that a certain skill is indeed necessary to pick quickly and properly so as not to injure the trees and branches or oneself.  Picking oranges in quantity is not quite as easy as it might seem.

Perfectly suited to drip irrigation, lines bring water directly to the root of the trees with no wastage in the process.

Automated to bring exactly what is needed, the water is pulled from the Coachella Canal, a branch of the All-American Canal, now a lined (it used to be an earthen canal,  and is now lined with cement) canal to eliminate seepage while flowing, farmers open aqueducts to bring water into ponds which is then readily available when needed.

Coachella Canal
Coachella Canal
Making our way passed the Salton Sea, a "sea" with a fabulous history of its own, our team made its next stop with Ellen Way of Prime Time Packing.  Another generational family farmer (her family has been farming since the 1700's), Ellen's quick smile and passion for agriculture exuded from every part of her as she took us through the life cycle of a pepper plant.

The largest Pepper Grower in California, Prime Time doesn't take its title of "The Pepper People" lightly.  Bringing green, red and yellow peppers to market nearly 365 days a year, Prime Time uses conventional fields as well as hothouses screened with mesh to assure the marketplace receives high quality peppers.

"One of the richest growing regions in the world, this fertile ground and warm climate are ideal for the demands of growing premium-quality peppers. Coachella Valley is the base of Prime Time's operations. Peppers are grown both in spring and fall seasons."
Prime Time

Pepper Plant
Actually a fruit, tiny peppers form after the plant flowers.  Grown conventionally in an open field, "plastic covered beds are used to cover the ground to aid in water conservation, weed control and to protect the fruit from direct soil exposure. Modern drip irrigation systems are utilized as well as the latest cultural technology."

Hence, each little plant gets its own personal water spout and is fed and watered just the perfect amount to bring big, beautiful peppers to our markets.

Pepper Plant - Prime Time Packing Co.

And then there are the hot house varieties.  Thicker walled peppers are cultivated in mesh hot houses which allows the pepper production season to stretch year round.  Hot houses bring a longer growing season, disease and insect as well as inclement weather protection and as much as 4 times the crop when compared to conventional methods.  However, those benefits come at a cost of some 4 times as much as conventional methods.

Prime Time Field - Coachella Valley - Pepper Plants
Prime Time's conventional pepper fields - Coachella Valley
With three completely different yet very similar farms under my belt, I returned home with a new appreciation for how important farmers are to our livelihood.  We may not think of them often, but they are indeed a daily part of our lives responding to our desires without us even fully realizing it.  Here's hoping the rains see fit to drop a little rain on our parched state to keep these farmers farming.  For more information see the California Farm Water Coalition... Food grows where water flows! 

With peppers on my mind, a few gorgeous red beauties found their way onto my grill for one of our favorite, yet very simple meals.  Filled with grilled peppers (I have a feeling the are from Prime Time...!), grilled onions (probably from the Imperial Valley), brown rice, beans and a loads of fresh ingredients (including ripe avocado most likely from one of my favorite farms in Temecula), this Mexican Rice Bowl has earned a spot on the favorite list.  Join me?  And when you get the chance... thank a farmer.

California Mexican Rice Bowl

California Mexican Rice Bowl
Filled with fresh ingredients, this rice bowl brings all the flavors of a Mexican fajita to the table.  Enjoy with grilled chicken if desired. 

prepared rice (brown or white)
prepared refried beans
grilled red, green or yellow peppers*
grilled sweet onion*
diced avocado
chopped tomatoes
chopped scallions
chopped cilantro

Scoop about 1/2 cup (more or less as desired) of the rice into a bowl.  Top with a few spoonfuls of refried beans, then top with vegetables (and fruits!).  Garnish with scallions and cilantro and a dollop of salsa if desired.  Enjoy!

*to grill onions and peppers, cut vegetables to fit on grill.  Rub with a small amount of oil and place on a preheated grill.  Turn heat to medium, and cover.  Grill for a few minutes, or until the vegetables have nice grill marks, then flip.  Grill a few minutes more and remove.
Cool.  If desired remove pepper skins as peppers cool, they should slide off fairly easily. 


  1. What a great story... and I love the photos! It was fun being on the trip with you!

    1. Thanks Jeanne!! It really was a great few days. I have so many more photos that I wish I had room for!!

  2. What a fascinating and informative tour, Kim. We are having a drought in Queensland too so I feel the deep pain and loss of the California farmers as they struggle to save their crops. I'm so glad that they're finding clever ways to water.

    1. Thanks Krista... it was an amazing few days. It will be interesting to see what the next few months bring. I hear word that the weather pattern may be changing in the next year or so to the opposite. Who knows?? Happy Saturday to you!

  3. Great post, Kim. There are so many people that take their food for granted and so many others that think corporations run the food business. It is good you put some family faces to the topic.

    1. Thanks Debra! It was a fascinating weekend, and became so personal as we met so many people with so much passion.

  4. That looks insanely delicious! Definitely gotta give this a try :)

    Happy Blogging!
    Happy Valley Chow

  5. You caught a drip! Great capture and caption :) There was so much information that I had to compartmentalize them in my mind - but we always seem to be on the same wave length - I was planning a "faces" collage, too.... Gorgeous photos as always, Kim, and so glad we were both part of this experience!

  6. What an awesome day you had! I think my brain would have been ready to burst. Love seeing all these wonderful photos Kim. California looks like a little slice of heaven through your lens.

  7. Farm tours are always so fascinating. It's inspirational to see where our food comes from. Love your Mexi bowl!

  8. I cant find ,diced avocado inmy country any substitues for it.. Mexica rice :P


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