AgriLife Extension connects food growth to consumption
Jesse Wieners knows consumers buy with their eyes, so he makes sure his produce meets the “pretty” criteria.
Wieners, owner of Wieners Family Gardens in Carson and Donley counties, is a conventional farmer, growing wheat, cotton, corn, grain sorghum and alfalfa. He’s also a vegetable producer, raising 20 different varieties and selling them in fresh markets around the Texas Panhandle.
Megan Eikner, Jody Bradford and Leonard Haynes, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agriculture and natural resources agents for Potter, Carson and Donley counties, respectively, recently hosted a field day on Wieners produce farm to enhance the education of how food is grown and help attendees understand how their food gets from seed to market.
“This was not a traditional crop tour,” Eikner said. “My ag committee has expressed interest in guiding our education efforts toward urban consumers, helping them understand agriculture and the safety of foods farmers produce.
“There is so much information on social media now, and our society seems to believe most anything they see on social media as fact. I know Jesse recognizes the urgency and works tirelessly to help consumers learn facts about agriculture, so his operation was a natural fit for this training.”
Consumer education: Produce labeling, handling
Eikner said it is important everyone understands the terminology so they can have intelligent conversations, whether it is about food labels or what certain words mean or don’t mean, i.e. “local” can mean anything grown within 400 miles and “natural” is anything with no artificial or synthetic additives. “Fresh” means unprocessed and unfrozen but doesn’t mean untreated and doesn’t indicate when it was picked.
The Texas A&M AgriLife Path to the Plate program is totally dedicated to educating the public about their food and provides more terms and definitions, Eikner said.
“That’s something we are all responsible for; one of the main drivers of Texas A&M AgriLife is to help you learn,” she said.
Eikner discussed the Food Safety Modernization Act, released in 2011. The act regulates all producers with sales of $25,000 or more. Wieners explained what he must do to comply with the act.
“As consumers, you always have to remember how produce is handled,” Eikner said. “You don’t know what has touched that product from the time it left the producer’s hands to when you pick it up in the store. Even if the producer went through all those quality control steps, there are still opportunities for contamination along the way. So, it is your responsibility as a consumer to make sure you wash it well and store it properly to keep yourself from getting sick.”
Produce markets, management and sizing, water testing, and proper cleaning, packaging, storing and cooling are some of the other issues Wieners discussed on the tour.
Wieners said his traditional farming background helps him understand the basics of plant needs and nutrition and insect and disease control. With modifications in the vegetable industry, he can help meet the wants and demands of customers.
He took participants on a tour of his French marigolds field, which is being grown for seed and then shipped to California after harvest for white-label packaging. Wieners said he had to create much of his own equipment to adapt to his vegetable farm, as not everything is readily available for this size operation like it would be for a conventional farm.
“I’m not organic, but I grow everything with passion and love from and for my family,” Wieners said.
What customers want
Wieners said he hears first-hand what consumers want when it comes to the food they eat. And, he sees how they make their purchases. They may say they don’t want chemicals used, but they will only buy produce with no nicks or insect damage.
“I’m often asked, ‘Do we spray?’, and yes, we spray early in the season using only one type of pesticide. We don’t spray near harvest season, and we can’t spray once the plants start blooming, because we use bees to pollinate the marigolds and vegetables, and we have to take care of our bees.”
That means he will see some plants with bugs on them that he can’t treat.
“Sometimes you have to pick the crop, pay for harvesting and then end up having to dump it, because it can’t go into the fresh food stream,” Wieners said. “We’re learning to work around the bugs.”
He raises several varieties of cabbage, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, melons, sweet potatoes, bell and jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn and onions.
Ultimately, produce farming is based on what the consumer wants, he said.
“If they don’t want pesticides used, we don’t use them; if they don’t want corn earworm damage, we spray,” Wieners said. “Reality is, the consumer wants both. So the way we do that is selectively harvest for certain markets and find another market for the others. Consumers buy with their eyes. They want something pretty.
“That’s the hardest part of the operation, finding ways to provide that,” he said. “Every year, though, I learn more and move away from spraying where possible due to the cost and labor involved.”
Keeping it local
Dillon Mena, executive chef at Metropolitan Speakeasy in Amarillo, attended the field day with sous chef Shelby Swindell. They buy from Wieners when the produce is in season. He said it was nice to see and hear about how Wieners grows the produce he uses at the restaurant.
“We’ve also toured the production fields in California of the big conglomerates,” Mena said. “It’s good to see things on both a large and small scale.”
He said they use local produce when they can but understand seasonality and know their options will change accordingly. They also know that the demand for produce can’t be filled without utilizing the conglomerates.
“It’s nice to be able to tell the story behind the produce to our customers,” Mena said.