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Leaders in the world's salad bowl

July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine

Iceberg, romaine, green leaf, red leaf, butter lettuce and endive are just a few of the many vegetables that thrive in the Salinas Valley.



Motorists winding their way along California’s historic El Camino Real are welcomed to Salinas by a mural of the late Andy Christensen, a pioneer in the region’s lettuce business.

As the 1940s-era Christensen proudly displays a box of iceberg lettuce—which has since become the variety of choice for many consumers around the globe—his descendants are reminded daily of his role in developing Salinas as “The Salad Bowl of the World.”

“Grandpa was dedicated and had a passion for agriculture, and that is where my father learned about the hard work and the rewards of producing crops,” said Christensen’s grandson Dirk Giannini, a partner in Christensen & Giannini in Salinas. “It is rewarding to produce food for our nation and continue such an important family tradition.”

Each year more than 80 percent of the salad greens consumed in the United States are grown in the Salinas Valley, which lies a few miles inland from Monterey Bay. In addition to iceberg, other locally grown varieties that have increased in popularity include romaine, green leaf, red leaf, butter lettuce and endive. Lettuce is consistently among California’s top commodities.

“There are certain times that 100 percent of the lettuce grown in California is coming out of the Salinas Valley,” said Dirk’s father, Jon Giannini. “Christensen & Giannini and other Salinas Valley farmers are very capable of doing the job because we have the weather and the ground that give us what we need, but we are also very progressive. We are committed to being ag industry leaders as far as being able to grow the best lettuce and the cleanest lettuce that there is.”

Jon Giannini is a third-generation farmer with a background that includes growing vegetable crops as well as raising livestock. Nearly 50 years ago, he married his high school sweetheart—Andy Christensen’s daughter—and later ventured into row crops with his father-in-law.

Like many other longtime farmers in the Salinas Valley, Jon Giannini recognizes and appreciates the Christensen family’s contributions to the local produce business.

“Andy’s father bought ranches for each of his four sons and set them up in the farming business. They were fairly good-sized farmers in the Salinas Valley in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “They farmed lettuce, but also a lot of beans, barley and sugar beets. That is how they started, but pretty soon they grew more head lettuce and then formed their own packing and shipping business known as Christensen Bros.”

The Christensens were part of an early migration of people from Europe—including the Danish, Swiss-Italian, Italian and Portuguese—who came to the Salinas Valley and started row crop farming, according to Christensen family friend Don Wolf.

Now retired after more than 30 years in the produce business, Wolf noted that farmers began growing iceberg lettuce in the region just prior to the 1930s. The demand for the hearty lettuce variety soon took off through the use of refrigerated rail cars.

“Lettuce became a success for the Salinas Valley with the ability to ship it in rail cars with ice, so it could travel all the way to the East Coast,” Wolf said. “Iceberg lettuce was unique to this climate at the time and it would hold up much better in transit than the softer leaf lettuces. So it was a sturdy commodity and it became the king of the lettuce industry all over the United States.”

It is this kind of innovation and savvy use of technology that has set the Salinas Valley apart from other growing areas of the world. A more recent example is the bagged salad concept that was developed in Salinas and transformed the lettuce business for California. As a result of this success, the majority of the lettuce varieties grown by Christensen & Giannini are processed and put into bags for companies such as Dole, Fresh Express and Taylor Farms.

“There’s been a huge shift and the market has swung to the value-added side of the business. Ready-to-go salads are triple rinsed and put into bags. Open the bag and —voila!—you have a salad,” Dirk Giannini said. “It is vital for our industry. Value-added is the future and it is going to continue. The industry is now trying to develop innovative products with different packaging.”

The three generations of family members who are partners in Christensen & Giannini have expanded on Andy Christensen’s staple iceberg and now offer a wide and colorful assortment of lettuce varieties to consumers domestically and around the globe. They also grow spinach, broccoli, carrots, broccolini, onions, lima beans and alfalfa.

The growing season for most of the family’s lettuce runs from April through mid-November. Once harvested, the crops are processed and placed on grocery store shelves in a matter of days.

Getting the lettuce varieties to the processors and ultimately to market requires an extensive team including Jon Giannini, who serves as a consultant, and his wife, Dorothy, who plays an important role as a partner in the operation.

The family farming tradition continues with Dirk Giannini, who is general manager, and his brother-in-law, Sam Daoro, who is production manager. Daoro teamed up with Jon Giannini nearly two decades ago, and as a third-generation farmer, he complements the family partnership well. Shelley Daoro, Sam’s wife and Dirk’s sister, works in the office with sister Lori Giannini. Their elder sister, Terry Fistolera, works at a vineyard in Santa Rosa.

Looking to her children—the next generation managing Christensen & Giannini—Dorothy Giannini smiles and says she believes her father would be proud.

“Farming is in their blood and once it gets in your blood, it is something that stays with you. I know they enjoy it,” she said. “Dirk and Sam both went to college and have had other opportunities, but returned to farming because it is what they love.”

Making food safety a priority

Progressive lettuce-growing operations in the Salinas Valley are committed to protecting public health and work hard each day to provide products that are healthy and safe.

For example, all of the shippers for which Christensen & Giannini grow lettuce have joined the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. This program incorporates science-based food safety practices and mandatory government inspections by auditors trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We consider ourselves food safety analysts,” Dirk Giannini explained. “When we walk the fields we are looking for food safety hazards as well as irrigation, fertilization and other crop needs. Food safety is a high priority for us.”

For more information, visit www.caleafygreens.ca.gov.

Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or csouza@californiacountry.org.


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