Wednesday, January 9, 2013

California: Land of Milk, Honey and Two Ways of Growing Pizza

Betteravia Farms in the Santa Maria Valley of California
Two hundred years ago, California's Santa Maria Valley was a lush river bed, with braided streams feeding thousands of species of plants, birds, insects and animals. The flat plain, stretching between steep green hills, is kept at a moderate temperature year-round by the Pacific Ocean fog.
This idyllic valley was God's gift to the pioneers, or so they probably believed when they got here. Today, no one questions that a miles-wide stretch of incredibly good soil with ample water and perfect vegetable-growing temperatures could be put to no better use than producing food for people from Japan to New York City.
The majority of the Santa Maria Valley is now owned by Betteravia Farms, which distributes its produce under the name BoniPak, short for Bonita Packing. As Hannah and I rode down from the Big Sur coast, fate put us in the hands of Don Reed, an avid cyclist and host who just happens to be a maintenance manager for BoniPak's cooling and refrigeration units. We stayed with Don and his wife in their whimsical geodesic dome house in Nipomo, and accepted his offer for a tour of the BoniPak facility the next morning.

We left early, frost still on the road but the sun rising promisingly in the sky. A couple miles later, we rounded a corner and suddenly were looking down on enormous fields the size of city blocks, extending from one end of the valley to the other, all the way to the ocean. Directly below us, workers were moving across a white-plastic-covered strawberry field, their long shadows making shapes like notes on a sheet of music.
On the road where we stood, more workers were roaring by in trucks or muscle cars on their way to work, ready to start picking as soon as the frost melted. We followed them down the hill.
For at least thirty minutes, we rode through field after field of broccoli, greens, cabbages and root vegetables. The roads were lined with vehicles, all belonging to the workers scattered among the fields. Some were moving drip tape and irrigation lines, another team sprayed weeds on the road shoulder, and many were transplanting or harvesting. Harvested vegetables went straight into boxes, loaded onto trucks and hauled to the cooling facility, where we were also headed.

Don is a born mechanic. His garage and barn in Nipomo are filled with antique cars in various stages of refurbishment, and his first car, the one he bought when he was fifteen, is sitting in his shop at Bonipak. He started working for the company about 28 years ago, long enough to see major changes in the way that produce is handled and distributed. In the beginning, he told us, his knowledge of refrigeration was limited to automobile A/C units. Today, he knows the complex cooling systems at Bonipak better than anyone, from the giant ice-making machines to the vacuum chambers that cool vegetables from the field down to near-freezing temperatures in a matter of seconds. It's this technology that keeps a head of lettuce "fresh" for weeks, allowing Bonipak to ship Betteravia's produce across the country or even to places like Japan and Hong Kong.

Electric forklifts move boxes of produce from  the coolers into the trucks.
As we walked around the six warehouse-sized refrigerators that store Betteravia's produce, we dodged forklifts carrying pallets stacked with boxes of broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower. The forklifts drove right into the refrigerated semi-truck trailers that were backed right into the warehouse wall, ensuring that the produce doesn't warm up again from the time it's picked to the time it gets to the processing facility or store where it's sold. Truck drivers stood by as their trucks were loaded, pacing and shouting into their cell phones.
Around 150 trucks come in and out of here every day. They take produce to processors like Campbell's Soup and Kraft or directly to establishments like Pizza Hut and Burger King. The shipping office estimated that 70% of the trucks go to the east coast. We were assured that those states aren't able to grow these things. Vegetables like broccoli, bok choy and Chinese cabbage from Betteravia are shipped to Asian countries.

A bit overwhelmed, Hannah and I thanked Don for his time and pointed Cynthia and Edith back to the main road. We followed it toward the city of Santa Maria, but turned off before we got far into the urban sprawl. Our route then took us into more farmland, most of it Betteravia's. Along Foxen Canyon Road, the landscape began to change a bit, with some hills and grape vines and less exposed earth. The car traffic all but dried up, leaving us to enjoy the road and the sunshine, along with swarms of serious-looking road cyclists.
Finally out of the industrial vegetable zone, we paused for lunch by the roadside, hoping we weren't picnicking in pesticides. A couple of cyclists stopped to chat with us, and they turned out to be anti-pesticide activists who had lobbied to remove one of the harmful strawberry fungicides from the chemical arsenal. They assured us that most of the vineyards don't spray anything, and that they are very choosy about what touches their grapes.
We also learned that Foxen Canyon Road is kind of hallowed ground for cyclists - Lance Armstrong and his team trained here. It's also hallowed ground for Michael Jackson fans because it's just a stone's throw from the gates of Wonderland, his infamous estate. Before taking off, our new friends also recommended a vineyard, so off we went to taste some Zaca Mesa reds.

An hour later, after chatting up the wine pourer for a couple extra tastings, we set out again to take on the final fifteen miles of the day. Unfortunately, there was a hill ahead of us, and we were not in any condition to take hill-climbing seriously at this point. Giggling all the way, we finally made it to the top, and the pastoral beauty of it really sent us over the edge. When you're on a bicycle, every victory is a huge one, whether it's riding a sixty-mile day or conquering a stubborn pain that threatened to put an end to the whole thing. We sailed down that hill, frightening cows and horses with our whoops and hollers. It wasn't just that hill, it was all of the hills - from the Northern California redwoods to our most recent climbs in Big Sur. It was all the getting lost and finding our way again, riding through sickness and cold and doubtful looks from strangers. Suddenly, we felt nothing but pure, heart-thumping joy - some mix of wine, adrenaline and a new, lasting surge of confidence.
We wound down all the way to Los Olivos, where we stopped for eggs and bread at a cute little market and called our hosts, Rich and Deb. Their profile had said that they lived on a ranch close to here, and I was envisioning something a little chaotic and woodsy, where we might ride through some goose poop or be asked to share a room with a horse but at least would find a good meal, because farm people always know what food should taste like.
As we rode through their neighborhood I began to realize that a Central California ranch is not the same thing as an Oregon ranch. The homes were lovely but nothing compared to the extensive infrastructure of new-looking barns, riding arenas and pastures surrounding them. The horses in everyone's yards gave us lazy looks as we squinted at the tiny numbers on mailboxes.
We finally found the mailbox we were looking for and rode down the long driveway, through the electronic gate and into the garage, which was a lit beacon in the swiftly falling darkness. I noticed a wall full of bicycles and felt a sense of relief - these were the kinds of horses I know best. Rich, a stocky guy with a shiny bald head, met us in the garage. After teasing us about riding past his house the first time, he announced that he and his wife were taking us out for dinner at a local restaurant that they knew we would love because they try to use all local ingredients.
We're used to our Warmshowers hosts being incredibly nice, but this was a bit above and beyond. We tried, but attempting to convince someone that you don't really need to be taken out to consume large amounts of gourmet food after you've been riding your bike for nearly a month straight is a lot like lying to their face. And we're not liars. So we showered, we met Rich's wife Deb and their two vociferous rat terriers, and we got in the car.
On the ride to the restaurant, we learned a little about the history of the area. Every valley is a bit different - from the Santa Maria valley, which was where we started at Betteravia that morning, to Foxen Canyon wine country, and then the Santa Ynez valley, which is where we ended up that night. The cluster of small towns around this valley are a mixture of ranches leftover from a more agricultural past and new development for tourists and rich Hollywood types. Right in the middle of it all is the town of Los Alamos, and the undisputed hub of Los Alamos is Full of Life Food's Flatbread Pizza.

Entering the restaurant colloquially known simply as "Flatbread", we felt like we were suddenly back in Eugene. The long wooden bar greeted us with locally brewed beer and wine on tap. People were crowded around waiting for tables, and as we sipped our drinks we checked out the small corner displaying the Flatbread Pizza boxes that can be found in stores nationwide, with toppings including flax seeds, pistachios and feta cheese as well as traditional mozzarella, mushrooms and olives. The pizzas are all made here, and the locally famous "pizza nights" at the Full of Life Flatbread factory are a new venture for the company. On weekend nights, they convert the factory floor into a dining area, and the tables are always packed.
Deb helps us juggle the starters at Flatbread.
Half an hour later, a friendly hostess with three-quarters of her head covered in dreadlocks showed us to our table, which was adjacent to the wood-fired pizza oven. Rich and Deb didn't mess around and ordered everything that was on special - four starters and two flatbread pizzas. The walnut, goat cheese and nettle pizza, which I was particularly excited about, was already sold out so we had to sub a mushroom and onion pizza, which Deb promised was a solid choice.
We ordered a second glass of wine and learned a little bit more about what makes the company special. The owner, chef Clark Staub, holds himself personally responsible for sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local, sustainable growers. A typical Facebook posting that Rich recounted described the morning before a pizza night, with him rounding up a steer that was to appear on top of crust, sauce and cheese later on. The Flatbread factory is also the site of a large raised-bed garden, which grows many of the ingredients for the pizza. Their commitment to non-traditional, unique ingredients has earned the company a reputation for freshness and deliciousness.
The starters arrived and we dug in. I'll never forget the avocado and blood orange salad or the ricotta gnocci with fried artichoke hearts. The flavors revived my recent memories of the central California coast, riding past the fields of artichokes near Monterey and taking an ill-advised detour through the desert north of Santa Cruz, the intoxicating scent of desert sage filling my lungs as I sweated my way up the steep hills.

We'd only ridden 35 miles that day, but in this incredibly fertile pocket of the world, that's about the maximum for two cyclists curious about food. Like those early settlers, we felt like we'd discovered our Mecca; the place where you can grow just about anything. Here are farms that can feed a million people and some that just grow for a few dozen. Betteravia Farms makes Pizza Hut possible, but Flatbread Pizza helps to make possible the livelihoods of hundreds of local food producers. Their restaurant is a community gathering point. BoniPak, on the other hand, employs enough people to be the sixth-largest employer in the Santa Maria area. In its own way, it's a community too.

Before any of us were here, the landscape was host to an even greater diversity of life, but humans shaped these valleys to be microcosms of food production. Their evolution took them from semi-inhabited places to self-sufficient ranches to factory farms. Now, companies like Flatbread are leading a return to a multi-tiered ecosystem of food and flavors. Will they eventually replace Betteravia as the demand for real food puts Bonipak's fast food customers out of business? Maybe not, but they certainly do challenge our expectations and ideas around food. How much electricity, water and time should it take to grow broccoli to put on a pizza? Is it just as fresh if picked that morning or supercooled the week before? Are we really okay with covering thousands of square feet of land in plastic just so we can have strawberries year-round?

In California, we do have a choice to visit places like Flatbread or pick up fresh produce at a farmer's market. As we rest up and blog here in Santa Barbara, we're preparing for the last leg of the Pacific Coast and will begin to head east through the desert before the month is out. We're not expecting to find either mega-farms or self-sustaining pizza joints in southern New Mexico or Texas. I'm thinking that in a month, I'll be at an Albertson's near Las Cruces, and I'll pick out a head of crisp, green romaine and thank Don.


  1. I really enjoy your posts about your adventures teaching and learning about food from the seat of your bicycles. Thank you for writing and a big thank you to all your sponsors who make it possible, including your wonderful hosts!