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Central Coast pea growers consolidate

Packer-broker adds loyal buyers The pea business is like a pea pod. Eat one pea; it's not much. Eat many peas, and it's a meal.

Mike Martines has taken that approach to the fragmented fresh pea growing industry on California's Central Coast where farming is largely small operations, often growing two or three acres of peas in isolated locations. Martines grows and packs peas, but he also is a broker and has parlayed that into a successful consolidation of the many small growers.

Martines has brought dozens of small pea growers into a block representing about 1,000 acres, giving him marketing control of one of the largest blocks of snap and snow peas in the San Luis Obispo area, the premier pea growing region of the nation.

"I saw a need for somebody to represent the growers," Martines says of the period in the early 1980s when he first entered the pea business. He began by selling supplies to snow and sugar snap pea growers in the area. In 1984 he set up his own company and began growing peas with his father, George.

But the situation that he found was one of grower isolation, both in growing and marketing.

"Most of the land we farm is leased," Martines says, and that further fragmented growers. In addition, he says, most growers were Mexican-Americans who were not familiar with the established marketing system, and had not tapped into the national pea marketing potential. Martines began to change that when he became a broker.

"In 1985 we purchased a ranch on Los Osos Valley Road," he says. That land ownership established Martines as a packer and broker of not only his own and many other growers' peas. He also grows and brokers small amounts of other specialty crops, such as tomatillos, teardrop tomatoes and poblano chile peppers, but the bulk of his business is peas.

"We're one of the only shippers in the area sticking to primarily peas. We concentrate on the peas, and by doing that we have a loyal clientele."

Not only are growers loyal, but buyers are as well. Martines Fruit and Vegetables has an agronomist who grows about 60 acres of peas directly for the company, and he also provides advice and support to growers who use the company as broker.

Helped growers Martines helps small growers find land and supplies, and he will also set up a variety of marketing arrangements with them. Some are independent growers who do everything themselves and simply sell their peas through Martines.

"Others have become accustomed to being under our wing," Martines says. "All they want to do is the growing."

Martines' company will find lease land for farmers, arrange for supplies, as well as pack and sell their produce. He will contract the entire crop, sell it on consignment or buy the crop directly.

"It's a little specialized business within the produce business," says Martines, who notes that most produce brokers do not want to deal with small quantities coming from dozens of small producers.

A fourth-generation farmer in the area, Martines uses his personal relationships with the many small, family growers to coordinate both the growing and the marketing of fresh peas.

"If you don't have the quality, it doesn't work," he says. Thus, he has concentrated on instructing growers how to grow for quality, and he has set up the packing system likewise.

The peas are field packed into 10-pound boxes and send to a cooler/packer in Oceano. Martines' quality control employee goes over each pallet, inspecting for freshness and quality standards to market premium peas nationally.

Martines explains that snow and snap peas are basically a six-month crop from planting to last harvest. They may be harvested in 10 or more passes through the field. They are also a very "weather sensitive" crop that does well in the mild year-round climate from San Luis Obispo to Santa Maria.

"We grow them all winter here," he says. In fact, there will be peas growing in one part of the county or other throughout the year. Only one variety of snow pea, the Mammoth Melting, is planted, but several sugar snap varieties are utilized. Martines says the two types are similarly grown, but the snow pea vines last longer.

"You might pick snow peas for one and a half months, and snaps for three weeks, on average," he says. A snap pea is a cross between a snow pea and an English pea.

All varieties are grown on stakes and trellised with twine. "It's very labor intensive," he says, and that is especially true of harvest. Growers' extended families get together and pick about every three days once vines are mature.

One of the secrets of good quality and quantity is fresh ground, Martines says. Good growers rotate crops every year.

"There are a lot of soil-borne viruses that are very hard on peas," he points out. The nearest thing to a sure bet in the pea business is to plant on ground never before in peas. Peas however, are a legume and very good for the other crops rotated behind peas. Martines says that grain crops, beans, peppers and even squash do well following peas.

Fusarium wilt is the biggest threat, Martines says. Fumigation would solve the problem, but no growers in this area fumigate. "It's not cost-effective."

Insects also can be a problem. Thrips, leaf miners and aphids are the primary pests, usually starting up in late spring and mid-summer.

"When everything else turns brown, the thrips pile into the pea crops because they're the only green around," Martines says. He advises growers to catch and spray the bugs before they become a problem, because once harvest starts, spraying must stop.

Drip irrigation Drip irrigation has revolutionized the pea industry on the Central Coast, because it has allowed growers to expand into small pockets of land that are not well-watered. The typical pea patch is a small spot of land watered by a domestic well that provides only about 10 gallons of water per minute per acre via drip tape.

"Drip has really increased the acreage a lot," Martines says. He estimates that it has at least doubled in the last dozen years. Average yield ranges from 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre for both pea types, though it can be more than double that on fresh ground.

A crop budget of around $2,000 per acre is normal, Martines says, and that includes harvest. Costs are kept down when growers reuse stakes and drip tape.

Martines' office manager, Tracy Truttman, says that by focusing on quality the company has cultivated a select clientele of buyers over the years.

"We prefer to send out a quality product rather than quantity," she says. The company has a salesman, and a quality control inspector.

"We have a very quality-conscious group of customers, and we respect that," Truttman says, noting that once those 10-pound boxes are sent in from the field they may be sorted and completely repacked if found to be below quality. They are cooled, and may be recooled before shipment if necessary to insure freshness.

"You have so many markets you have to play to," Truttman says. One of the company's biggest markets is to other brokers who need a few peas to go along with much larger shipments of other produce.

Peas are graded according to size, freshness and appearance (blemish and disease-free).

In fact, quality is one reason that Martines imports about 20 percent of the peas he sells every year. Typically that occurs mainly in the winter months when the Central Coast rainy season limits pea production. Guatemala is the big producer, with Mexico also sending some peas north.

"I decided a long time ago that there is no use fighting it," Martines says of imports. So he utilizes imported peas at times when the local harvest is short, again emphasizing quality. Because peas from Guatemala are going to be on a ship an extra four days to market, he makes sure growers there focus on post-production cooling and freshness.

As for American peas, Martines says the future is cloudy. Not because of the competition from overseas, but because of competition for the land they are grown on. The Central Coast is becoming highly developed, and a lot of those small, level plots once considered rich pea ground now are sprouting houses.

"Very uncertain," Martines says when asked what his future in peas will be like. He says that the desirability of the land for both houses and wine grape vineyards is slowly pricing pea growers out of some select areas.

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