Farms Busy in Winter

A portobella mushroom that is almost ready for harvest at Del

To compete during cold season, growers also pack, process and
South County – To be at George Chiala farms Thursday was to have no idea that it’s almost winter. On the first rainy morning of the season, Chiala was a blizzard of activity.

Workers were peeling organic onions, grinding bell peppers, flash freezing jalapeño peppers and roasting garlic. Fork lift operators were loading pallet after pallet of vinegar, chipotle chili blend and Anaheim red pepper puree onto idling trucks waiting to rush off to market. It was a dangerous place to stand still.

Winter in South County used to be a time for farmers to take something resembling a vacation. Not anymore. To compete, growers are now packers, processors and shippers. Vacations have given way to 12-months of trying to keep up with the competition and remain economically viable.

“We’re always looking for something new to do in the winter,” Tim Chiala said. “We need to and it’s a way to keep good employees. If we shut down, they go off to Mexico.”

South County’s temperate climates mean farmers can grow some crops – cabbage, broccoli and bok choi, for example – year-round. But the money in winter is in processing.

So at Chiala Farms on Thursday, pepper sauces were being re-blended so they would be just the right amount of hot. Olive oil was being flavored with enzymes. Jalapeños were being flash frozen at 150 below zero and prepared for life in jalapeño jack cheese. Garlic was undergoing every imaginable operation to become an ingredient in soup, pasta sauce and oil.

“Everywhere you go, it’s something,” Chiala said. “You need to get everything possible out of the field.”

Chiala is currently running six production lines around the clock. Things will slow down soon, but the farm will remain a 24-hour operation through the winter.

Things weren’t quite as hectic at Uesugi Farms on Highway 25 Thursday morning, but the lull won’t last. The bell pepper season is winding down here, but by Thanksgiving Mexican peppers will flood the market. Before they hit supermarkets, the peppers will go through Uesugi’s processing plant.

“It’s the only way we can survive,” said Peter Aiello, of his farm’s partnership with a Mexican grower. Aiello owns Uesugi with his father, Joe. “We would have shut our doors a long time ago if we hadn’t expanded into brokerage and shipping, processing.”

And, Uesugi features a pumpkin patch in Morgan Hill complete with train rides and 4,000-pumpkin pyramid. This has been the patch’s busiest year, helped by the new Field of Scream 3-D Corn Maze and the addition of lights to make the patch more noticeable.

“It’s a pretty big spectacle and it fills a gap,” Aiello said. “It’s been our best year by far. We put lights in. We figured, if they can do it at Wrigley Field, so can we.”

Another way South County farmers make it through the winter is by working together. The owners of Chiala and LJB Farms open a two-way tab every year and settle up at the end, sometimes with just a few beers.

“We take pride in our area,” Chiala said. “It’s us against the world.”

Chiala also processes Uesugi’s peppers, and both farms have a close working relationship with Del Fresh Produce in Gilroy, which specializes in mushrooms and packages produce for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and a variety of other stores.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Emily Baird, business manager for Del Fresh. “We need to help each other out.”

Del Fresh grows mushroom all year in indoor compost bins. Though production slows during winter months, the farm benefits from higher prices and it’s ability to get its product to consumers within 24 hours of harvest.

Del Fresh does all of its own shipping, so hours after white mushrooms are picked and sliced, they can top a pizza at a local Round Table. The farm is also experimenting with a new product: so-called steak cut white mushrooms that are much thicker than the typical sliced white mushroom.

“There haven’t been too many innovations in the mushroom industry,” Baird said. “We’re trying to reach the people who will buy mushrooms if they’re on sale with something different.”