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Organic, conservation major priorities at Ocean Mist

Chris Drew in artichoke field
Chris Drew, Ocean Mist Farms, says the strategic plan for the vegetable grower-packer is to provide suppliers and shoppers with the highest quality vegetables grown.
More and more retailers are asking Ocean Mist for organic vegetables. We can’t supply enough to them, says Chris Drew, Ocean Mist Farms

Consumer demand for organically-grown vegetables from Ocean Mist Farms has grown exponentially since the grower-owned company launched its full line of organic fresh veggies in 2015.

“It’s a trend based on continued consumer preference,” says Chris Drew, vice-president of operations at Ocean Mist Farms (OMF). He’s in charge of post-harvest operations, value-added, food safety, and quality assurance at the 94-year-old company based at Castroville, Calif. in Monterey County.

With organic, the vegetable leader says it’s all about meeting consumer demand.

Drew says, “More and more consumers prefer to buy organic produce. As a business, we recognize this and want to grow and supply what shoppers want to buy – conventional and organic fresh vegetables.”

Drew and OMF marketing manager Diana McClean discussed vegetable issues during a Western Farm Press interview this summer at OMF’s Castroville office.

Organic or conventional

Ocean Mist began organic production in the early 1990s strictly with artichokes. Today, about 30 vegetables are grown using conventional and organic production practices.

McClean follows organic consumer demand data available from the Nielsen Perishables Group. She’s monitored the rise in organic vegetable demand for a decade plus.

“The trends for purchasing organic are trending up rapidly and it’s not going away,” McClean believes. “It’s a steady upward trend and the more organic that’s available for a shopper to buy the more organic sales will occur.”

Drew says growing interest in organic agriculture is partially tied to sustainability-transparency issues reported by some news media.

“The prevalence of information about organic is enormous – factual or not,” Drew says. “Through our website, we educate shoppers on what they are buying.”

The bottom line, he says, “We grow what our retailers want to buy from us and our retailers want to buy what their shoppers want. More and more retailers are asking Ocean Mist for organic vegetables. We can’t supply enough to them.”

Ocean Mist is responding to market demand by converting farm land and increasing production. Yet organic demand can vary across different regions of the country, perhaps higher demand in California but less demand in the Midwest.

Despite the higher demand for organic crops, Drew made it clear that for Ocean Mist Farms no major food quality differences exist between conventionally-grown and organically–grown vegetables.

“Both are equally safe, nutritious, and grown in a similar fashion. From a sustainability standpoint, the organic footprint probably has a higher carbon footprint than conventional programs due to added cultural practices.”

Ocean Mist Farms grows fresh vegetables at its Castroville home base; plus in Oxnard, Ventura, and Coachella Valley, Calif.; and Yuma County, Ariz. and Baja Mexico.

Energy, water conservation

Drew also discussed efforts to increase efficiency at Ocean Mist to improve vegetable quality, production efficiency, and using fewer inputs.

“Efficiency is what drives a business,” the company leader explained. “We really focus on areas where we are not as efficient as we could be.”

For example, Drew was a part of efforts to boost efficiency at company cooling facilities, including the installation of variable speed compressors which idle up and down based on current power needs. Plus, additional insulation was installed around cooler facings to keep cold air inside the building.

“We also added new LED light fixtures with motion sensors that turn off the lights when no motion is detected in a cooling room.”

As part of their sustainability initiatives, Ocean Mist Farms is evaluating the placement of solar panel arrays on less productive farmland, or atop parking structures.

Water efficiency

Drew says Ocean Mist believes strongly in water conservation and uses some recycled water through the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Program, or CSIP, for irrigation purposes. In this process, runoff and water is tertiary treated to drinking water standards, and used by the ranch for irrigation.

Ocean Mist Farms is one of the largest users of CSIP water, says Drew.

“We are reusing water so it’s not water pumped from the ground. Doing this helps slow the intrusion of seawater into the aquifers. By not pumping from the ground we’re actually allowing the aquifers to replenish naturally with fresh water and slow the onset of seawater intrusion,” Drew says.

Irrigation wise, about 80 percent of Ocean Mist’s farmed acres are irrigated via surface drip with tape located about an inch below the soil line. On hilly terrain, the drip system includes pressure compensating (PC) drip tape which allows irrigation on rolling topography without wasting water.”

The system compensates for pressure in the line. As the slope increases the amount of water released at the top of the hill is the same amount released at the bottom of the hill.

Pest strategies

Like other vegetable growers, Ocean Mist faces pest pressures in vegetable production. Since the artichoke is Ocean Mist’s flagship vegetable, keeping tabs on pest and disease threats is always a top priority, says Drew, a pest control adviser.

A top pest for artichoke is the artichoke plume moth, Platyptilia carduidactyla. According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management (IPM) website, larvae can feed on any part of the plant yet economic damage occurs when the larvae feed on artichoke buds creating an unmarketable product for consumers. 

“With our artichokes we employ a degree day model using weather data to determine when a flight period for the moth will occur,” Drew says. “We also use pheromone traps when a flight period may be underway.”

To manage the pest, traps are monitored every day or two to determine the number of trapped moths at night. As the daily numbers climb, the flight period has begun and then control measures are utilized.  IPM is a valuable tool used by Ocean Mist.

“We apply a control measure only when necessary,” Drew says. “It’s not economical or ecological to spray any more than we absolutely need to.”

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