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Baby vegetables sprout gourmet cuisine and good health

Jan./Feb. 2006 California Country magazine

Small farming operation grows baby vegetables for a growing gourmet market.




 

Deeply rooted in all things small, a farming operation located along California's Central Coast, south of San Luis Obispo, brings a rainbow of colors and an array of flavors to fine restaurants and dinner tables around the world.

Babé Farms, located in the bustling agricultural community of Santa Maria, came to life in 1986 after company founder Will Souza returned from a trip to Europe with a vision to produce America's newest niche crop of baby greens and baby vegetables, and to appeal to a consumer's discriminating pallet.

Although Souza is now retired, his vision of producing a unique product of exceptional quality continues today with farmer Judy Lundberg, president and chief executive officer of Babé Farms.

Lundberg grew up on a diversified farm in Lompoc and continued in agriculture by farming her family's Santa Maria ranch with her husband Frank. In 1981, the Lundbergs agreed to become partners with Souza and shortly after, began Babé Farms with Souza and Greg Pedigo.

"We really got started with baby vegetables because Will is a real world traveler and an innovator. He traveled in Europe extensively and saw baby vegetables in the European market, which was ahead of us. Will returned to the U.S. and realized his vision of growing specialty vegetables, which was essentially the beginning of Babé Farms," Lundberg said.

The year-round grower/shipper Babé Farms, whose employees do not pick one leaf of baby salad greens or one handful of baby carrots until the produce is ordered, has expanded its line of products to more than 100 different packs of commodities.

Its success exploded with retail consumers and chefs at fine restaurants in major cities around the nation. The farm's produce can be found in many well-known locales such as the Bellagio and Rio in Las Vegas, the Sheraton Palace in San Francisco and at the Old Port Inn in Shell Beach. About half of the produce Babé Farms offers can be found at high-end and retail markets such as Whole Foods and Costco stores across the nation.

Among the 75 varieties of baby vegetables it grows throughout the year, Babé Farms offers nine varieties of radishes that come in an assortment of colors such as white, red and pink. Six baby carrot varieties range in color from the basic orange, to the more unique hues of yellow, maroon, pink and white. A handful of baby cauliflower varieties are grown in white, green, light green, purple and orange. Other baby vegetables available include French beans, baby squash, teardrop tomatoes and baby beets.

"I love the variety of colors and textures that baby vegetables provide. They are very versatile. We serve them as hors d'oeuvres, snacks or in salads and in some vegetarian entrees," said Chef Rick Manson, owner of Chef Rick's Ultimately Fine Foods, a restaurant and catering business in Santa Maria. "And it does amaze people. Not everyone is aware that these tiny vegetables exist, so it has a thrill factor for my customers and that is what I'm about."

Babé Farms also grows 15 varieties of specialty greens, including Savoy cabbage, bok choi, friseé, radicchio, spinach, red romaine, green leaf, lollo rosso, green romaine, red leaf, red oak and green oak. Specialty lettuces are combined into a recipe that comprises Babé Farms' Continental Salad, sold at several retail grocery stores.

"We process 20,000 pounds of spring mix per day. The majority of what we produce goes to retail markets," said Jim Boster, processing plant manager for Babé Farms. "We are growing by leaps and bounds but are still small enough to do custom blends, and that is what it is all about for us serving the consumer."

"If a customer wants a special blend and they have a need for 10 boxes a week, we will make the special blend," Lundberg said. "We have what we call the ‏Bellagio Blend' that goes to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. The Bellagio selected the variety of lettuces that went into the blend and we make it exclusively for them."

In addition to fine restaurants and specialty retail markets, Babé Farms exports some baby vegetables and specialty greens to regular customers in countries such as Canada, Mexico, Japan and Taiwan. Another percentage of the farm's commodities is sold to produce buyers.

"Of what is sold to the brokers, we're not sure where it ends up eventually," Lundberg said. "It is not unusual for us to be at a dinner in Chicago and have somebody bring us something that looks like ours. We'll ask them where it came from and it turns out that it is ours."

Uniqueness and incredible diversity of colors are just two of many reasons chefs and customers are attracted to baby vegetables and specialty greens. The bountiful health benefit is an added bonus for shoppers and consumers alike.

"Everyone knows what is good for them and what is healthy: fruits and vegetables," Manson said. "When they show up in interesting shapes and colors and are presented in a beautiful way, they are a joy to eat. It is a welcome ingredient."

Carrots, for example, have always been a well-known source of vitamin A. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service have examined the benefits of carrots containing different pigments purple, red, yellow and white. Each pigment carries a health benefit, according to the ARS research. Red carrots, for example, derive their color mainly from lycopene, a type of carotene believed to guard against heart disease and some cancers. Yellow carrots accumulate xanthophylls, pigments similar to betacarotene that support good eye health. Purple carrots process an entirely different class of pigments, anthocyanins, that act as powerful antioxidants.

According to the USDA's new MyPyramid food guidance system, vegetables and leafy greens contain an assortment of beneficial nutrients including potassium, dietary fiber, folic acid and vitamins A, E and C.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at csouza@cfbf.com.)


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