Circle of life. From harvesting to planting and back again. From dry times to plentiful water. From oceans to inland fields. From new companies starting up and getting larger to still holding true to their original and foundational values. I considered all of this on my recent morning visit to Earthbound Farm in the Salinas Valley of California.
It struck me most when Larry Santos, head farmer at Cauley Ranch in the Salinas Valley, was talking about his fields and about growing organic cilantro, some of which we buy for our Chipotle restaurants. He also discussed the weather and how the rains will hopefully start up again for the nearby mountains in the future and wash away the dry times to replenish the water supplies for the valley. Humpback whales were feeding closer and closer to shore in the area, as the local ocean temperatures continued to rise. Larry remembers that the last time this happened, there was much rain in the following months. The circle of life will repeat.
He should know, he’s been farming this area and on this very ranch for years. I may have asked him - stupidly - during this ocean story, if he surfed. And he looked at me, and went immediately into another story about his visit with a farmer in Missouri some time ago. The Missouri farmer had heard Larry worked in California, and he snickered, “So do you surf?” And Larry had replied, “Nah man, I’m just like you, only I’m in California, and you’re in Missouri.”
We were just in time that morning to watch a large quantity of cilantro being harvested, and the technological wizardry of this harvesting process was truly impressive. Essentially, they use a super-specialized machine to mow the organic cilantro evenly from row to row at a particular height and to immediately sift and box it up straight from the field. Nothing is more quick and simple and efficient than that. Senior Supply Manager Chris Glynn said they used to pick cilantro by hand. I couldn’t imagine how long that took or how hard that was. Chris read my mind and grinned, “Oh it took a longgggg time. This is much, much faster and better.”
Earthbound Farm centers most of its agricultural efforts in the Salinas Valley, and in the off-season, in Yuma, and this is their 30th year of operation. In many ways, their story parallels Chipotle’s 21 year story from humble beginnings to fortunate success and hopeful optimism for the future. As with Steve Ells at Chipotle, Earthbound’s original founders, Drew and Myra Goodman, still guide their company’s efforts from start to finish. But they’re constantly innovating with new ideas about how to do things even better with their people, produce, land, growing methods, and technology. Just like we’re trying to do at Chipotle. Always trying to improve what we do, always trying to make our ingredients better, which is a primary reason why we are working more and more with the fine folks at Earthbound Farm. Circle of life. Another decade of growing great produce continues on into the next and helps us make even better burritos.
Chipotle gets a good quantity of organic cilantro from Earthbound Farm, a large portion of which come from Larry Santos’s efforts at Cauley Ranch. We’ve bought around 110,000 pounds of organic cilantro from Earthbound to use in our restaurants already this year. Chris said that Cauley Ranch has about 600 farmable acres, 13 miles of underground water pipeline for irrigation, and grows a number of things in addition to organic cilantro, such as organic baby arugula, baby spinach, lettuce, chard, and of course the ever popular kale. I was lucky to visit other area Earthbound farms with Chris that day too, and we saw organic celery, a number of varieties of squash, broccoli, and so on.
Later that morning, we returned to Cauley Ranch to close the circle from harvest back to planting. Larry was there again - he seems to be everywhere at once on Cauley Ranch by the way - showing us their tractor-towed planters, adjustable to allow for different seed sizes and for specific planting depths and spacing.
I rode on the planter for a bit and while I was on it, the tractor driver looked back at me with a grin (probably wondering if I’d accidentally fall off), then he turned his head forward so as not to stray from the precise line he was planting. At that time, I felt a few drops of rain, and those drops increased into a brief but happy drizzle. Something to complement that underground 13 miles of pipeline water perhaps. Maybe this was the beginning of the rains Larry had mentioned earlier today and that California needed so badly. Fingers crossed. Circle of life. -Joe
PS: If you’re at our Cultivate Festival in Minneapolis on August 23rd or Dallas on October 18th, please say hello to the Earthbound Farm team and learn the simple secrets of making your own organic “salad-in-a-jar” with chef Sarah LaCasse – Earthbound Farm’s own organic flavor ace.