By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
CVS is not currently creating genetically modified lettuce — that is, introducing genes from entirely different life forms into its lettuce’s DNA — only because Avila thinks all the bad press around genetic engineering will scare away consumers. The competition, however, doesn’t share Avila’s wariness. Prominent among them is Alfonso Romo Garza, a Mexican billionaire who controls the seeds from which sprout 40 percent of all the vegetables sold in U.S. supermarkets. Romo is the CEO of the $650 million, Oxnard-based Seminis Inc., a major vendor of lettuce seeds to California growers. He is also a major booster of genetically modified foods. As The Wall Street Journalgushed in a recent profile, Romo “envisions creating utopian vegetables: non-browning lettuce, broccoli with enhanced cancer-fighting properties, and produce of all kinds that won’t wrinkle, spoil or blemish.” Seminis has conducted extensive research on genetically modifying lettuce to make it resist common herbicides, although that particular program is currently on hold, according to a company spokesperson. Other companies are researching the possibility of turning off the gene that makes cut lettuce surfaces turn brown.
Salinas-based D’Arrigo Bros., one of the state’s leading lettuce growers and the one that supplies the Cheesecake Factory’s romaine, buys seeds from Seminis and other companies but gets a huge chunk of its romaine seeds from CVS. So the odds are good that sometime in the year before I sat down to my caesar, the seed that would produce it was plucked from a flowering romaine head in one of CVS’s production fields. Loaded with thousands of other seeds into a cotton sack, it was then hauled to the Salinas warehouse of Pacific Grading Services, a company that does nothing but run millions of seeds over a giant sifter to sort them by weight and density.
This is a crucial process for modern agriculture. To grow and harvest on an industrial scale, the way my romaine head was grown and harvested, the techniques of mass manufacturing have to be applied to farming. All the seeds must sprout almost simultaneously, so that the heads will all be ready for harvest at the same time and will be the same size so that they can be harvested most efficiently. To ensure a field of uniform heads, you need to start with uniform seeds.
But just sorting seeds isn’t enough to ensure lockstep growing. From Pacific Grading, my seed, now grouped with thousands of others of similar dimensions, was taken to a “seed enhancer” — most likely Salinas-based Seed Dynamics. There it was treated with chemicals to make it germinate more readily and coated with a clayish jacket of chemical compounds to make it less appetizing to worms and easier to plant. That’s just the first in the dizzying parade of chemicals that will be applied to my lettuce during its short life.
Boxed up with thousands of other identical chemical balls, my seed was then trucked to D’Arrigo Bros., currently the Cheesecake Factory’s exclusive supplier of romaine heads and hearts. Loaded into a mechanical planter hauled behind a tractor, it was then dropped into a furrow in one of D’Arrigo Bros.’ many fields, neatly spaced two inches from its cousins on either side to minimize waste.
Most of D’Arrigo Bros.’ fields are in the Salinas Valley, salad central for not just California but the entire country. With its rich soil, ocean-cooled climate and a harvesting season that lasts most of the year, the valley has been a prime lettuce-producing area since the days John Steinbeck grew up there. More than half of all the nation’s romaine is produced in Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley sits.
Lettuce is a highly centralized crop. California produces most of the lettuce that Americans eat, and almost all the rest is grown in Arizona. California actually grows more than half of all the produce eaten in America — more than $27 billion worth of fruits, nuts and vegetables every year. Very little of that comes from the small, family-run American farm of enduring national myth. Agriculture is increasingly an enterprise run by large corporations on ever larger megafarms. Most agribusinesses don’t even call themselves “farmers” anymore; the preferred term is the blunter “growers.”
D’Arrigo Bros. is a bit of an oddity in the industry in that it is still a family-run business. Launched in 1924 by two Sicilian brothers, Andrew and Stephen D’Arrigo, the company is famously credited with having introduced broccoli to America. In a burst of marketing inspiration and paternal pride, Stephen made a picture of his then 2-year-old son, Andrew, into the company’s logo. Produce bearing the Andy Boy label is still sold nationwide. Andy Boy grew up to take over the business, and still keeps a hand in running it, though management is now mostly in the hands of his daughter Margaret and one of his sons.
“I never even thought about doing anything else,” says Margaret, a chipper, 40-year-old suburban-mom type, wearing a pink sweater and blue jeans, whom I meet at her office in a pseudo-Spanish-style office park in Salinas. She grew up in the town, but her dad always took her out to the ranches on the weekends. “Growing something wholesome makes you feel good,” she says. “It’s something good for your body, and good for the economy.”