IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

How does a pepper travel from the farm to your plate?

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Have you ever wondered how the pepper you buy at the supermarket makes its way to your table?

Bob Readding is the field operations manager with Dandrea Produce and has been in the agriculture business for over 50 years. He’s referred to as the “godfather of produce.” Even from the car he can tell you if the fruits and vegetables in the fields were good quality.

“This is the most densely populated state in the country, yet you’ll see how much open acreage we have,” he said.

It all starts in the greenhouse where the pepper seeds grow from February until April. From the greenhouse, the peppers get planted until they’re ready to be picked in July.

“It would look like that, you’d plant it about like that, then it just grows, grows, grows,” said owner of Cassaday Farms, George Cassaday.

The farm has been in the family since 1895.

“There were chickens, back in the 30s it was all chickens and eggs, so everybody grew eggs. Then you’d raise asparagus for Seabrooks, which was a big can house. And then Campbell Soup was a big thing so Campbell Soup — all South Jersey was all Campbell’s Soup. And then from about the 80s on you got out of all that the egg business, got more industrialized and then you went to more fresh market stuff,” said Cassaday.

It was Cassaday’s great, great, grandfather who started the business on the 70-acre piece of land.

Here’s something a lot of people don’t know: green and red peppers are the same thing.

“Eating a green pepper is like eating a green tomato. Once it’s got all its sugars and stuff like that is when it’s red or starts to mature. So technically you’re eating an immature pepper when you eat a green,” Cassady said.

The red pepper will cost you more — roughly twice as much — because it takes about 2 weeks longer in the field to turn red. Cassaday says you’ll lose about half of them in that time to external factors like the weather.

“This is from the sun. It’s like you or I being exposed to the sun. Feel how warm that is? It’ll get hot and burn it,” Cassaday said. “If you really look super close see the white things on there? That’s all spores, so when it rains all those spores will spread to the other ones and rot all the other peppers. See where the plants are dying? See over there? That’s where the spores got on the plant and killed the plant.”

Cassaday said you won’t find in-between peppers in a supermarket because stores only want pure green or red. It’s a visual market, but restaurants will buy them.

“Say you go to a restaurant, they don’t just want green peppers — they want color in it because these are actually cheaper because they’re an in-between color nobody really wants them,” he said.

Machines sort the peppers after they’ve been picked. It divides them out by size, among other things.

Once peppers have been planted, grown and picked, it’s time for them to head from Cassaday Farm to Dandrea Produce for distribution.

“It’s very difficult to take time planning with retailers, laying out seasonal programs and pricing and knowing market trends. It’s very hard for farmers to do that, so that’s where we come in,” said Peter Dandrea, director of sales at the produce company.

First is the inspection process.

“He’ll count the peppers, he’ll look at the surface — if there are any imperfections he’ll let us know. And he’ll then determine by percentages what the defects are so then we can put together a thorough [quality control] report with pictures and that way we can give our growers an idea of what everything is looking like, if we’re hitting our customer specs at the retail level, and we can control quality that way,” Dandrea said.

The peppers then go into the cooler, then eventually back onto the truck to take them to the supermarket.

Like many of the businesses in this area, Dandrea Produce has been in the family since 1917. Peter is fourth generation.

“It was a small farm, just around 200 acres. It’s probably about 10 to 15 minutes from here in Vineland. It was my great grandfather, just a small operation. We only did a couple items,” he said.

Dandrea says farming requires generations of knowledge, and it’s pretty expensive from the machinery to the land.

“If you look at the average age of the farmer in American now it’s over 50 years old. And, so, a guy who’s in his sixties now, whose children do not want to get into the family business. So for him, to sell his farm, it’s not that bad of a prospect,” he said.

How does Dandrea keep the whole farm to table concept going?

“From our perspective, it’s making the job of farming as easy as possible in terms of what we’re able to do to help in the financing and operational aspects,” he said. “A lot of these families do want to stay in it. And for us the importance is paramount for us to help support these sustainable efforts to keep local farms operating the way they have been for decades.”

“In farming, you have to adapt and you can’t stand still. You can’t say, ‘Oh I’m happy with peppers’ or ‘I’m happy with one drip line.’ You have to go to two because I felt it increased my yield,” George Cassady said.

The good news is eating healthy is a growing trend which is helping the industry.

“It’s definitely going to take, certainly an effort from the whole community here, and I’m seeing it happen,” Dandrea said.

That means farmers like George, inspectors like Bob, and a desire to help with logistics like Peter, so a pepper can get to the supermarket, onto the shelf, from the farm to your table.