Califonia Bountiful

Superfood surge

May/June 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Fresh baby greens reignite America's love affair with spinach

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If you don't remember the last time you cracked open a can of spinach, you're not alone. Neither does farmer Rod Braga.

The advent of ready-to-eat packaged salads has changed the way Americans prepare and consume spinach—from what was once largely a cooked leafy vegetable to what's become a go-to green at the salad bar. This shift also changed the type of spinach that farmers grow.

Braga's family has grown spinach in the Salinas Valley since the 1960s, back when much of the crop was destined for the can or the freezer, and fresh spinach was sold mainly in bunches.

"The leaves were big and tall and kind of tough," Braga recalled. "We would bring it home and my parents would boil it down and throw it on a plate. And if it was wintertime and we didn't have any, they'd open a can and put it on your plate. I wasn't a big fan of it as a kid."

Americans ate lots of spinach prior to and during World War II, with consumption peaking in the mid-1940s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite the vegetable's long-standing association with a well-known cartoon sailor, which helped cement its reputation as a nutritional powerhouse, the nation's appetite for the leafy green began to wane in the 1950s. By the early 1970s, U.S. consumption of fresh spinach fell to historic lows.

The rise in popularity of prewashed and bagged salad greens in the early 1990s began to reverse that trend, as spinach became one of the first leafy vegetables to take advantage of cellophane packaging, said Richard Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor. Not only were Americans eating more spinach, but they were falling in love with the fresh baby-leaf version.

"I really think some of the early folks who were putting lettuce and romaine in a bag had started to realize that young spinach has a taste and tenderness that is delicious," Braga said. "And the only way to deliver it to somebody was to clip it and put it in a bag."

Though he used to reject the cooked spinach his parents made growing up, Braga said he now eats a baby spinach salad almost every night and doesn't even put dressing on it "because it's so tasty."

Baby-leaf spinach is mechanically harvested, with much of it done at night when cooler temperatures and higher humidity help maintain the delicate leaves' freshness. A harvester with a saw-like cutter clips the leaves, which are then lifted by conveyor belt into bins on trailers.

Video: Watch as spinach is mechanically harvested at night.

Fresh and fast

Because of the convenience of the packaged product, Mary Zischke, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Research Program, said people who used to buy fresh bunched spinach are switching to bagged spinach.

Increased presence of spinach in salad bars and Americans' growing interest in food and nutrition also contributed to the vegetable's meteoric rise following its 1970s slump. Spinach often appears alongside other leafy greens in fresh, prewashed salad mixes, helping to boost its share of space on plates.

These days, Americans on average consume about 1.7 pounds of spinach per person each year, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Most fresh spinach is eaten at home—and cooks aren't just making salads with it.

"We think people are cooking it, juicing it," Zischke said. "It's very versatile that way. You can do a lot of different things with it, which is probably also contributing to its popularity."

A quick search of food blogs and websites reveals the variety of dishes that welcome a dose of the green. Its mild flavor pairs well with many ingredients and is equally at home in Asian, Middle Eastern and European cuisines. Both home and restaurant cooks are tossing bags of fresh baby spinach into stir-fries, soups, pasta dishes, casseroles, dips, grain bowls or side dishes. A natural pairing with eggs, spinach stars in omelets, scrambles, souffles, quiches and vegetable tarts. A quick, simple sauté with garlic is a popular option.

California remains the nation's largest producer of the in-demand vegetable, responsible for growing 70 percent of all U.S. fresh spinach. Most California-grown spinach is marketed fresh in bags or clamshell containers, with another 20 percent sold fresh in bunches. A small portion is still grown for freezing, but the Golden State no longer makes canned spinach, a segment that has largely disappeared, although some Southeastern states still produce it.

Most of California's spinach comes from the Salinas Valley, where it grows nearly year-round. During winter months, production moves to the southern desert valleys of Imperial and Coachella. When production dips along the Central Coast, it migrates to the southern coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and the San Joaquin Valley.

The crop matures quickly—typically in 30 days. In the summer, when conditions are ideal, baby spinach can be planted and harvested in about three weeks, Zischke said. Bunched spinach, the leaves of which are grown larger—or what farmers call "teenage" size—takes about two months.

Unlike lettuce greens that require workers to cut each head of lettuce, baby-leaf spinach is mechanically harvested, with much of it done at night or during very early mornings, when temperatures are cooler and humidity is higher.

"It's a really delicate product," Zischke said. "Anything you can do to stress it less is good for its shelf life in the bag."

Rod Braga, left, president and CEO of Braga Fresh Family Farms, stands in a field of spinach with Nick Trebino, the company's vice president of farming. The farm markets its organic spinach under the label Josie's Organics, named in honor of Braga's grandmother.

Save our spinach

The most common type of spinach grown in California is that with flat leaves, although some wrinkled-leaf, or savoy, varieties are still used. Not only is flat-leaf spinach easier to clean for processing, Zischke said, but it packs better in salad bags.

Rising demand for spinach—especially organic, which accounts for about 40 percent of the state's production—has come with some headaches for farmers, however. In every region where spinach is grown, farmers are constantly battling a fungal disease so widespread and destructive that it could threaten the long-term viability of their crop.

The problem is especially difficult for organic farmers who rely largely on spinach varieties that have been bred to resist the disease, farm advisor Smith said. It helps that Americans can't get enough of baby spinach, because one technique farmers use to deal with the disease is harvesting their crop early, before symptoms appear—though that also means less yield.

Zischke said her research program has been working to find solutions to keep spinach production in the state sustainable.

"The demand is not going away," farmer Braga said. "We're going to try to make sure we're keeping the product on the shelf."

Ching Lee


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