Bordering U.S. Hwy. 101 through California’s Salinas Valley in Monterey County are acres and acres of green produce arranged in tidy rows; they extend to the Gabilan Range framing the valley on the east, and stop at the Santa Lucia Range to the west.
Drivers don’t stop often and barely glance at either side as they speed toward their destination in Northern or Southern California. But despite its repetitive exterior, that 90-mile stretch of the Salinas Valley plays an indispensable role in our nation’s produce supply. According to the Monterey County Farm Bureau, 61 percent of the nation’s leaf lettuce is grown within Salinas’ almost 370,000 production acres, along with 57 percent of our celery and 48 percent of our broccoli. I recently took a trip there to learn a little more about Mann Packing Co., one of the biggest grower/shippers in “America’s Salad Bowl.”
| Mike Costa of Costa Family Farms is the primary grower for Mann Packing in Salinas, CA.
Mann’s origins are reminiscent of a Steinbeck novel. H.W. Mann began working in the Salinas fields for 40 cents an hour in the late 1930s, and in 1976, Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci became partners in the business with Mann. Today, Mann’s spans three generations of the Nucci and Ramsey families; it has 700 employees, and the majority of the business is women-owned and -operated. Its produce, meanwhile, can be purchased across the country in nearly every major grocery store.
As the fog still blankets the valley floor, Mann’s CEO Lorri Koster and I drive out into the fields to meet up with Mike Costa, the primary grower. His family history is similar to that of the Mann family: His father started growing beets during the late 1950s, and now Costa, his siblings and his children farm the same land his father did. The relationship between Mann’s and the Costa family stretches back to the 1970s, when the Costas grew broccoli for them before switching to leaf lettuce in 1982.
| Lorri Koster is the CEO of Mann Packing, and is part of the third generation of the Nucci family to work in the Salinas produce industry.
Other major changes have been implemented in the years since. “We’re getting more and more into Organic as demand is going up. It used to be a niche, but now Organic produce is mainstream, so we’re trying to keep up with demand since the transition to Certified Organic crops takes around three years,” Costa says. “We grow 40–50 varieties of lettuce throughout the year, and we have rotational crops of sugar snap peas, broccoli, broccolini® and cauliflower. We’re constantly working with breeders and seed companies to try new varieties as well. If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards.”
Costa’s farm has expanded beyond the valley, with production moving to the Arizona and California deserts when it’s too cold to grow certain crops in Salinas. The marine layer from the Pacific Ocean that covers the valley allows its growing season to be longer than most, typically lasting from March to November.
Mann’s is currently pursuing more culinary-focused business practices by working with chefs to create recipes with their products—like a pesto using their custom salad blend, or pickling their snap peas. They’ve also introduced their own panel of Central Coast and Bay Area chefs to provide feedback and insight on Mann’s new products and culinary trends. “We want to know how people are using our products, and we want to create new and innovative ways to use our produce and constantly evolve,” Koster says.
Innovation in the world of produce may seem improbable. Innovation in farming techniques, sure . . . but in the product itself? That’s almost unheard of. Mann’s, though, isn’t satisfied with the status quo. They’re constantly seeking to better their products while making them more accessible to their customers and distributors. Here are a few things the company has up its sleeve.
Better Burger Leaf®
The average consumer may not think about the engineering that goes into a lettuce leaf, but Mann’s certainly does. “We wanted something that would fit perfectly on a sandwich, with all the components that you want in burger lettuce,” Koster explains. After experimenting with different lettuce breeds, Better Burger Leaf® was born: a circular leaf with the look and taste of upscale green leaf lettuce but the hardiness of iceberg. It also has no center rib running through it, so the lettuce is almost all leaf—making it ideal for sandwiches and burgers.
| With the hardiness of iceberg, taste of green leaf lettuce and no center rib, Better Burger Leaf® is an ideal match for burgers or sandwiches.
Stringless Sugar Snap Peas
After spending a hefty portion of my childhood sitting at the counter destringing snap peas for dinner, I felt a personal sense of giddiness when Costa and Koster led me to a field full of curly tendrils on which sugar snap peas dangled. “We created a pea that has no string, making it easier to snack on the go or put in your child’s lunch without preparation,” Koster says as the three of us munch on the peas straight from the vine. About 40 million pounds of the peas—an exclusive variety sold only by Mann’s—are harvested each year.
| Mann’s proprietary stringless sugar snap peas grow close to the ground in Salinas.
I was especially surprised to discover that Mann’s is the exclusive producer and seller of Broccolini® in the United States. “If you see Broccolini in the supermarket or at a restaurant, it’s ours,” Koster says proudly. Broccolini is the natural hybrid of broccoli and Chinese kale (called gai-lan) developed less than 20 years ago, and it’s enjoying immense popularity right now as one of the fastest-growing vegetables to appear in restaurants both gourmet and fast food (it recently made its debut on Chick-fil-A’s menu as part of the chain’s Superfood Side).
| Baker’s salad features Broccolini from Mann’s, the only producers to grow and sell the vegetable in the United States
The importance of tasting produce in the field cannot be overstated, but getting chefs to test out your products is an equally essential part of the produce business. After a morning spent in the fields and a groundbreaking ceremony of Mann’s new 120,000-square-foot facility, the Ramsey and Nucci families gathered with friends at Hahn Estate winery in nearby Soledad to enjoy a lunch prepared by Tony Baker, Executive Chef at Montrio Bistro in Monterey. What followed was an exemplary meal that highlighted the many uses of produce from Mann’s, including grilled Broccolini with charmoula, roasted peppers and cilantro; pickled spiral-cut kohlrabi with pickled enoki mushrooms, thyme and truffle vinaigrette; and a shaved vegetable salad with pine nuts, Madeira-soaked raisins, Italian parsley and chili flakes.
| Tony Baker is the Executive Chef of Montrio Bistro in Monterey, CA, and a member of Mann’s chef panel.
“It’s easy to come up with dishes when you have great ingredients,” Baker says modestly when I compliment him on the meal. An English chef with French training, Baker uses Mann’s produce at Montrio; one of his favorite dishes to make with their products is the grilled kohlrabi steak, also served at lunch, which Baker adds, “is an excellent vegetarian protein. It’s something I came up with for the Produce Marketing Association awards three years ago, and it’s stuck!”