How Your Ramen Gets Made: Sun Noodle & Blue Apron

How Ramen Noodles Are Made

Sun noodle is the secret ingredient that powers all of New York City’s top ramen restaurants. They manufacture noodles for Momofuku, Ivan Ramen, Chuko, and many many more. 

This family-owned business got its start in Hawaii in 1981, back when ramen in the U.S. was mostly instant. Today, ramen is beloved and revered from coast to coast, and Sun Noodle deserves some of the credit. Over the past 30 years, Sun Noodle has partnered with hundreds of restaurants. They produce over 90,000 servings of noodles per day, and make 300 variations on their original ramen recipe. That way, every chef can work with the noodle that best suits their cooking. Chances are, if you’ve slurped a bowl of noodles in a big city, they came from Sun Noodle

Luckily, high-end ramen restaurants aren’t the only place to try Sun Noodle manufactured noodles. Blue Apron uses Sun Noodle ramen in dishes like Beef Ramen Soup with Choy Sum and Enoki Mushrooms, and Chicken Tsukune Ramen, Spring Vegetable Ramen with Garlic Scapes and Soft-Boiled Eggs. This Crispy Pan-Fried Ramen is one of Blue Apron’s top-rated recipes

Want to learn more about the incredible thought and craftsmanship that goes into every packet of Sun Noodles? Watch the video below to see how Sun Noodle’s East coast facility churns out ramen.

Rethinking Ketchup with True Made Foods

It’s no secret that the modern diet is full of way too much sugar. Take a peek at a few ingredient lists and you’ll find sugar lurking in the most unexpected places: it’s in your broth, it’s in your beans, it’s in your spaghetti sauce. This was partially what drove Abe Kamarck to create True Made Foods. 

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Abe Kamarck at work

As a parent, Abe Kamarck felt he was losing the battle against ketchup. As much as he insisted “it’s like putting candy on a burger,” his kids were clear about what they wanted. Kamarck knew that squash and other vegetables could lend naturally occurring sweetness to dinner, so why couldn’t they work for condiments? 

To answer that question, he first needed to find the perfect culinary mind to team up with. He found that partner in Ed Mitchell. Mitchell is a tried and true Southern barbecue pitmaster, you might have seen him in the Netflix documentary Cooked, or read about his work in Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Story of Transformation. At first, this partnership could sound like an odd pairing. Mitchell has dedicated his professional life not only to barbecue, but also to keeping Southern traditions alive. Kamarck was hoping to shake things up, question traditions, and turn the condiment industry on its head. 

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Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan Mitchell

Luckily, the things that had in common were far greater than their differences. Both men are veterans, and both are fathers. They have a shared strong sense of loyalty, and are dedicated to serving their communities and families. By working together, Mitchell and Kamarck were able to create a product that would meet Kamarck’s high-standards for health and family, all while honoring Mitchell’s commitment to barbecue and quality flavors. 

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Pitmaster-approved barbecue sauce

Today, True Made Foods makes nine different condiments. Reading the ingredient list on the back of a bottle of a True Made Foods product is like taking a breath of fresh air. The bottle lists tomato paste, butternut squash, and carrots; there isn’t a single item you couldn’t find at the grocery store. Conventional ketchup has 6.4 grams of sugar per ounce, while True Made Foods’s low-sugar ketchup has just 1.6 grams per ounce. Most importantly, Abe Kamarck’s kids love it.

Blue Apron and Feeding America

The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted lives across the globe. Over the past few weeks and months, personal and professional plans have been turned upside down: weddings have been cancelled, and businesses have shuttered. Many people in the U.S. have found themselves fearing for their loved ones, and for their own safety. With the novel coronavirus continuing to spread, there’s no denying that our most vulnerable communities will be hit the hardest. As the nation and the world continue to grapple with this uncertainty, we’re wondering, what can we do to help?

Feeding America® is a United States–based nonprofit organization. Their nationwide network of food banks is responsible for feeding more than 40 million people annually. They accomplish this important work with a network of food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other community-based agencies. Feeding America is uniquely equipped to help those who are most at risk, including children, seniors, and those who have lost income as a result of COVID-19. 

In this time of crisis, Blue Apron is partnering with Aspiration, which offers banking services with a conscience, to support the food community. Not only will we continue to serve our customers, we’re striving to help those in need as well. That’s why we’ve chosen to support Feeding America’s mission to end hunger and to protect vulnerable communities.

Any and all readers can donate directly to Feeding America using the button below. Aspiration’s current and new debit card users have an extra chance to contribute. Now through April 30, 2020 Aspiration will donate $100 to Feeding America when you purchase your next Blue Apron box with an Aspiration debit card. You can sign up for an Aspiration debit card here. Together, we can rise to this challenge and continue the fight against hunger.

A Chevre Grows in Indiana

Capriole, an artisanal producer featured in Blue Apron’s Fall Cheese Collection, is behind some of the best — and most giftable — goat cheese in the country

A baby goat on the farm at Capriole Cheese

What do you do with 500 goats? It’s not a question Judy Schad, founder of Capriole Cheese in Greenville, Indiana ever thought she’d have to answer. What started 31 years ago as a small enterprise on her family farm — “I was milking 70 goats, making some cheese, and thinking I was hot stuff,” she says — quickly grew into a full-fledged business when American artisanal cheese as an industry took off. To keep up with the expanding market, the Capriole herd soon ballooned to over 500 animals, which was increasingly difficult to manage; in 2012, Schad decided to sell it. “For the first time,” she says, “we could concentrate completely on the cheese.” Now the animals are raised by nearby Indiana farmers, who ship the milk back to their original home, where the Capriole team turns it into one of their nine distinct, award-winning varieties.

“For the first time,” Judy Schad says, “we could concentrate completely on the cheese.”

While Capriole does make fresh chevre — the creamy, slightly tangy goat cheese of your imagination — it’s their more out-of-the-box styles that feel most apt for entertaining. The O’Bannon, for example, is a soft cheese wrapped in bourbon-soaked chestnut leaves, imparting a hint of smoky flavor. A “nutty idea” that came to Schad after pillaging the chestnut tree in her yard, the O’Bannon is a labor of love, requiring an annual shipment of nearly 900 pounds of leaves from a partner farm in Ohio. The result is a cheese almost too pretty to eat, wrapped up like a present and “nearly indestructible,” making it a great gift. 

The O’Bannon

On the other end of the spectrum is the Mont St. Francis, a firmer, aged variety made in the style of European cheesemonger monks (a real thing!). The slightly funky wheel is washed with a rinse of sorghum, a syrupy sweetener similar to molasses, and heavy imperial stout, currently Monnik Beer Company’s His Dark Materials. It’s a heartier variety, which pairs well with honey, charcuterie, and dark, strong beer, which means autumn is really when it shines. “When do you want a big, meaty cheese like that?” Schad asks. “When the weather cools off.”

The Mont St. Francis

Both the O’Bannon and Mont St. Francis are available in Blue Apron’s Fall Cheese Collection, a cheese box created in partnership with Murray’s Cheese. In addition to the two Capriole cheeses, the collection includes a creamy Maple Leaf red wax gouda and crumbly Murray’s High Plains white cheddar, along with Rustic Bakery flatbread crackers and Date Lady date syrup, for serving and drizzling. Buy one this season for a last minute get-together, crowd-pleasing starter, or delicious gift.

The Pasture-Raised Chicken or the Egg

Matt O’Hayer, co-founder of Vital Farms, is describing all the ways he loves to cook eggs. 

“Soft-boiled and marinated in a ponzu sauce…poached in a sous vide…a variation on eggs Benedict with lobster or crab meat on a muffin or wilted kale with hollandaise sauce—egg on egg, hard to beat!”

Matt grew up in Rhode Island, where he sold eggs in the ‘60s, pushing a cart door-to-door. As a kid, he visited the farms where beautiful, brown Rhode Island Red hens laid, and saw how they lived: on the grass, outdoors.

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Fast forward several decades: Matt found himself thinking again about eggs. Now living in Texas, he purchased a farm and began to raise chickens. He ended up selling the farm, starting another business, selling it (“I get bored easily”), and moving full-time onto a catamaran with his wife.

But his thoughts kept returning to eggs. He remembered how incredible the eggs he had sold when he was younger were, with their bright yellow yolks and thick shells, thanks to the chickens’ primary diet of nutritious grass. In the years since, he had all but stopped eating eggs: he didn’t believe the ones he could get from the grocery store were ethically raised (“The chickens are being tortured”), and not coincidentally, he thought, they didn’t have the same delicious flavor.

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Matt decided to start his third and final egg business: Vital Farms, a company that uses the highest available standard for raising laying hens: “pasture-raised.” Based on the European standard for “free-range” (1,000 birds per hectare), 108 square feet doesn’t necessarily mean flat, open space. On the contrary, it ideally means a varied topography, with hills and shade and fallen logs that chickens love to flutter up on.

Happy chickens are a riot. They follow you everywhere in big, cooing packs. They nip curiously at your boots. They flop on their backs and take glorious dust baths. They’re a fascinatingly complex social animal that is happiest foraging in its natural environment.

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Taste for the Obscure

Jason Wilson discusses his exploration of the world’s lesser-known wine grapes.

GodforsakenGrapes27580JF (1)There are approximately 1,400 grape varieties used for winemaking, but most of the world’s wine comes from only 20 of them. Author Jason Wilson hit the road to find out why. His new book, Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine, explores the grapes you never hear about and never see in wine shops—often with good reason. But perhaps the next great grape is just waiting to be discovered.

Q: You’re best known for editing The Best American Travel Writing series, and for your drinks column in The Washington Post, which focused mostly on cocktails. What led you to wine?
A: I had always been writing about wine as well, but it wasn’t as front and center. Honestly, I got pretty bored with cocktails—they’d kind of plateaued in terms of interest and knowledge. I still write about spirits, but wine was just more interesting.

Could it be argued that the wine market’s reliance on 20 grapes is really just market forces at work? Giving the people what they want in the same way that Hollywood makes the same films over and over?
It’s market forces at work, for sure. It’s easier to sell 20 grapes than to expect that people will have a taste for 300 or 400 grapes. But it’s not for me to say what people should drink. If they only want to drink five grapes, go ahead. I’m just telling you there’s a lot more out there you might like that you haven’t been presented with.

And it’s not like I don’t drink Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Of course I do. But I’ve been discovering others I’m interested in as well.

What’s the most exciting wine variety you discovered in your research for the book? Does it have the potential to go mainstream?
In the book I get into the idea that obscurity is relative. Grüner Veltliner is probably my favorite grape, but for most people in the U.S. it’s still pretty obscure. On the other end of the scale are alpine varieties, where there’s one acre of each grown in the entire world. Somewhere in the middle are the wines of southwest France, like Mansois [also called Fer]. If you like Cabernet Franc or those more savory red wines, it’s a cool, inexpensive red. Maybe moving a little less obscure would be Schiava from Alto Adige, Italy—a light red you can drink every day.

Were there any grapes you discovered that have enthusiastic, perhaps delusional advocates?
Some of the Eastern European ones, the jury is out on. Žilavka, from Bosnia, for example. But I feel terrible every time I have to say that about one of these grapes.

wilson_7 PHOTO (1)Is taste the reason why so many varieties never caught on, or is it typically a more nuanced story, grape to grape?
It’s from grape to grape, and because of market forces, power, trends and geopolitics—not because of taste. It’s not monolithic. For example, there are great Chasselas, [a white wine] from Switzerland, and also not great ones—but you can’t get the good ones here. Also, Chasselas is shockingly lacking in acidity, but it’s a perfect wine for certain occasions or times of day other than dinner. You have to think about the situation. Mostly it didn’t catch on here because it’s a hard sell. Oaky Chardonnay is an easy sell.

One of our favorite discoveries for Blue Apron Wine was a St. Laurent. Do you think it has a shot at the spotlight?
It’s a very finicky grape because there’s so much variation from year to year. Some years it’s amazing, some years it’s not. I had one from 1950 in Austria that was amazing. It’s really good [from vineyards] around the city of Vienna.

What’s the endgame for an avid wine drinker? Is it embracing the understanding that there is no endgame at all, and instead enjoying the journey of discovery?
That is it. There’s this idea of wine education where wine is a ladder, and at the top there are all these serious, important wines that you gain enlightenment with. That isn’t the case at all.

Wine is a labyrinth, and it leads from one thing to the next. There’s endless discovery if you’re willing to have an open mind and embrace the fact that you’re never going to know everything. There’s always a new grape or new region. That’s the best thing about wine, really.

Sign up for Blue Apron Wine and save on your first order! Click here.

Blue Apron Adds Vital Farms Pasture-Raised Eggs to Recipes

We are excited to announce our latest supplier partnership with Vital Farms, a leading producer of pasture-raised eggs. Now, in all Blue Apron recipes that include eggs––such as our Korean Beef Bibimbap and our Marinated Vegetable & Soba Noodle Salad––our customers will enjoy cooking and tasting Certified Humane pasture-raised eggs from Vital Farms, a company with a mission to raise the standard for high-quality ingredients.

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“We believe everything about a pasture raised egg is different—the taste, flavor, color,” said John Adler, head of culinary, Blue Apron. “We are proud to partner with Vital Farms and transition our entire egg supply to their high-quality and ethically sourced eggs. It’s just a much better experience.”

Pasture-raised eggs are laid by hens that spend their days outside on fresh pastures, not cooped up in small cages or huddled by the thousands in huge barns. In stark contrast to conventional eggs, pasture-raised hens live happy, healthy lives as close to nature as possible for domesticated animals. These pasture-raised eggs taste and look great. The hens benefit from good quality care, and customers benefit from a great tasting product.

The Vital Farms difference:

  • Clean Eating: Vital Farms girls enjoy fresh pastures free of herbicides and pesticides, with all the critters in the grass they can find. A supplemental feed provides the basics, but nature provides the goodness!
  • Fresh air + sunshine: Every one of Vital Farms’ small family farms is located in the ‘pasture belt’ so their lucky ladies can enjoy fresh air and sunshine all year round.
  • Free to Roam: With at least 108 square feet per hen, Vital Farms chickens have plenty of space to satisfy their wanderlust and get to explore the pastures with their best hens.
  • Eat Kind: Vital Farm eggs are all Certified Humane® Pasture-raised, the gold standard for laying hens. Their farms are regularly audited to ensure they maintain these high standards.

Introducing Blue Apron x Chrissy: Chrissy Teigen Brings Six of Her Favorite Recipes to Blue Apron Menus This Summer

Chrissy Teigen, a New York Times best-selling cookbook author, widely known for her obsession with hearty, homemade, and delicious cooking, is bringing six of her original recipes to Blue Apron menus this summer. The exclusive partnership, which begins June 4, 2018 and continues through the week of July 9, 2018, will include a selection of Chrissy’s favorite home-cooked meals from her first cookbook Cravings. Chrissy worked in collaboration with Blue Apron’s culinary team to adapt these recipes exclusively for Blue Apron. Customers will also receive a sneak peek of a recipe from Cravings 2, Chrissy’s second cookbook that launches this September––Pork Banh Mi Sandwiches with Pickled Cucumbers & Carrots.

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Speaking on the partnership, Chrissy said: “It’s no surprise to anyone that I love cooking at home. I’m constantly experimenting with new recipes and sharing both my hits, and my misses! I am excited to partner with Blue Apron to share some of my favorite recipes directly with my fans, followers, and home cooks, making it easy and convenient for them to cook with me in their home kitchens.”

“Chrissy’s love for food is absolutely infectious. She has established herself as an authentic and trusted culinary authority,” said Christine Fu, head of partnerships, Blue Apron. “This partnership is a natural fit for Blue Apron, namely because we share Chrissy’s passion for addictive, incredible, and unforgettable recipes. We are so excited to bring Chrissy’s recipes to our menus this summer so that home cooks across the country can enjoy her original creations.”

The six Blue Apron x Chrissy recipes are:

  • Week of June 4, 2018: Garlic & Soy-Glazed Shrimp with Charred Broccoli & Hot Green Pepper Sauce
  • Week of June 11, 2018: Sesame Chicken Noodles with Bok Choy
  • Week of June 18, 2018: Chinese Chicken Salad with Crispy Wontons
  • Week of June 25, 2018: Chicken Lettuce Cups with Sweet Peppers, Mushrooms, & Jasmine Rice
  • Week of July 2, 2018: Chipotle-Lime Chicken Fajitas with Mushrooms, Monterey Jack, & Crema
  • Week of July 9, 2018: Pork Banh Mi Sandwiches with Pickled Cucumbers & Carrots

Blue Apron x Chrissy recipes will be available only to Blue Apron customers and can be ordered for the week of June 4 starting now. For more information, visit: www.blueapron.com/chrissy.

The Tomato Is Dead, Long Live the Tomato

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Harry Klee has eaten, by his estimation, over 500 different varieties of tomatoes. He eats tomatoes in “massive quantities,” he says, multiple times per week.

He loves them in sauces (he has strong opinions on marinara). He loves them roasted and braised. He looks forward to them on pizzas, baked in tarts, sun-dried. But there’s one way he loathes them: raw. After participating in at least 1,000 informal taste panels while studying tomato flavor at the University of Florida, he just can’t bring himself to eat them uncooked and unseasoned anymore. “I’ve just had so many that are so bad,” he explains.

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This is the problem Klee, a horticultural scientist and one of the planet’s foremost tomato experts (yes, that’s a category), is trying to fix. Tomatoes are native to South America and were eaten raw in their petite, wild form by the Inca and the Aztecs. (Think of today’s tomato cultivars as gargantuan berries.) After Columbus, tomatoes were introduced to Europe and beyond, becoming integral to a myriad of cuisines. But after World War II, something went terribly awry. American breeders who develop new tomato varieties, growers who plant and harvest them, wholesalers who sell to grocery stores, and grocery stores that sell to consumers stopped paying attention to the one thing you’d think would be most important, and which has now become Klee’s life’s work: how the tomatoes actually taste.

“The industry is set up in such a way that growers are not paid for good flavor,” says Klee, with the frustration of an avid foodie as much as that of an academic who has been able to diagnose and respond to the system’s flaws from the outside.

“They’re paid for yield. So they go to the breeders and say, we want more yield, we want disease resistance, we want tomatoes that ship a long way.” Meanwhile, consumers, unable to sample tomatoes in stores before they buy them, have historically made choices based on two criteria: appearance and price. In a culinary travesty of beefsteak-sized proportions, flavor was forgotten, and in recent years, most commercially grown tomatoes, while beautiful and cheap, have become heartbreakingly bland. They’ve lost that aromatic punch of sweetness and acidity that past generations enjoyed, which drives Klee crazy.

About an hour north of Klee’s office in Gainesville is an unassuming field lined with tomato plants. You wouldn’t know from the road that this is an extension of Klee’s lab. Here, Klee and his colleagues are trying to build the tomato of the future by merging present with past—and by imitating bees.

A UF student carefully approaches a tangle of verdant green vines wound thickly up a trellis. She is wielding, of all things, an electric toothbrush. She peers into a yellow tomato flower, then carefully reaches the buzzing instrument inside. Like an insect’s beating wings, the vibrating toothbrush produces a miniature spray of yellow pollen that the student collects and uses to fertilize another plant. Through this simulation of a natural process, a hybrid is born. And Klee is betting that one of these hybrids will return summer’s most iconic ingredient to its rightful culinary dais.

Tomatoes on vine“The challenge,” says Klee, “is to restore all of the flavor of the heirlooms without compromising the gains the breeders have made”—in yield, disease resistance, and transportability. Through countless taste panels and chemical analyses, Klee’s lab has developed what he describes as “the ideal tomato.” This is a tomato that everyone, regardless of their personal preferences or cultural background, would agree tastes “great.” As of now, this tomato remains a platonic ideal. But by farming for flavor one generation of tomatoes at a time, Klee believes his lab will get there around the turn of the decade.

To Klee, the stakes are extraordinarily high. “What better way to make people improve their diets than to make fruits and vegetables that actually taste good,” he asks, “that people really want to eat?” What scares him most is when young people don’t know what great-tasting fruits and vegetables are, having only experienced bad ones—like the samples that have tragically left him unable to stomach the raw fruit to which he has devoted so much of his life. But what gives him hope is how many people are as vocally unhappy about the current state of affairs as he is, who badly want flavor back.

Over the years, Klee has sent seeds to thousands of home gardeners for some of the beautiful, flavorful tomato varieties his lab has developed on the way to a perfect commercial variety, and they write him about their experiences almost every day. They gush that they had forgotten what a real tomato should taste like. A gardener in his eighties recently wrote Klee to say that he had been waiting 50 years to eat a tomato that good again. Another gardener told him that she had been eating caprese salads every day for the last 30 days because the tomatoes were so delicious.

This summer, we’re excited to be launching our tomato program, designed to put the flavor back in summer’s quintessential fruit. All season long, you’ll receive heirloom and specialty varieties selected for their exceptional flavor. They’re picked by our farm partners when they’re ripe and tasty, like the ones you’d and fresh at a farmers’ market.

The Power of Pollination

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A couple of years ago, farmer Tony Emmi’s neighbor asked him for a favor. Mr. Winter, his friendly, longtime beekeeper and proprietor of Winter Apiaries—located just down the road, outside Syracuse, in upstate New York—was doing some renovations on his property and wanted to know if Tony would be willing to store some of his honey bees for him temporarily.

Tony said of course. He liked Mr. Winter. Tony’s farm, Emmi & Sons (part of a farm co-op that has supplied fairy tale eggplants to Blue Apron), and Winter Apiaries had been doing business together for years. And after all, bees are an enormously positive presence on a farm. As bees weave between flowers, collecting the nectar and pollen they feed on, flecks of pollen get stuck to their bodies, and they spread it to other plants, which allows the plants to bear fruit. Without this symbiotic loop of sustenance and reproduction, much of the food we eat—including many of our vegetables, fruits, and nuts—could not grow.

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What happened next left Tony in awe. At the time, he was growing 10 acres of winter squash, and he had been planning to rent his usual hive per acre from Winter Apiaries to help with pollination. He had never tried renting more than that; for a medium-sized, 300-acre farm like Emmi & Sons (started during World War II by Tony’s grandfather and expanded by Tony’s father and Tony himself), doing so would have felt cost prohibitive. Tony had never seen what happens when bees run amok—until then.

Pollination_Blog_3 “The yields were unbelievable,” Tony remembers. Mr. Winter had brought in 60 hives, and Tony put them all in his winter squash fields, planted with varieties like butternut, honeynut, acorn, spaghetti, delicata, and buttercup. The bees pollinated so many of the plants so often that Tony couldn’t actually pick all of the fruit, since much of it was still green during the harvest that fall, forcing him to leave it on the vine immature. “I even offered to pay Mr. Winter for the hives,” Tony laughs. “But he wouldn’t take it. There were so many bees—you couldn’t even walk in there. I really got to see the powerful effect of pollination up close.”

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Domesticated bees have been used to help pollinate crops for millennia. The Ancient Egyptians transported mud hives up and down the Nile as different crops came into bloom. Today, beekeepers move bees from farm to farm in trucks loaded with bee boxes, or slatted wooden hives, carefully unloading them in farmers’ fields.

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At Emmi & Sons, Winter Apiaries’ bees show up in mid-April, and they start by the apples, pollinating fruit that won’t be picked until fall. (Ever since his memorable favor for Mr. Winter, Tony does his best to incorporate an extra hive per acre into his budget to increase yields.) Then Mr. Winter and his son—who, like many beekeepers, only wears a netted hat, no suit or gloves—return and put the hives by the strawberries and blueberries. Next, they move them into the fields of zucchini and yellow summer squash, and finally by the winter squash in late July. When pollination at Emmi & Sons is done, Mr. Winter picks up his bees and heads to Florida to pollinate winter citrus, following the larger patterns of continental bloom.

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And so it goes across the country: honey bees move by the billions between regions, pollinating almond trees in California, say, then traveling to Massachusetts to pollinate cranberries. Just as bees and plants co-evolved to provide for each other, the  fates of humans and bees are intertwined. We can’t do without bees, whom we domesticate in large numbers. Our food system relies on them. And bees need our help: native bee species are threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious plague attributed to a number of simultaneous factors—including pesticides, poor nutrition, parasites, and viruses—is eroding honey bee populations, jeopardizing the availability of produce and driving up the price of pollination for farms like Emmi & Sons.

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“If we lost bees, it would be devastating,” says Tony. “They’re a natural resource,” like fresh water, minerals, forests, and fertile land. “We have to protect them.” In so doing, we protect ourselves. And, in a way, we’re not so different. Bees harvest nectar and pollen from the same crops that Tony later harvests himself, and they dine on them just like we dine on the delicious fruits, nuts, and vegetables of their labor.

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The Almond Brothers

Today, over 80% of the world’s almonds come from California—where John, Jim, and Joe Gardiner, tucked away in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, are working together across three locations to grow and supply some of the best.

Success in the almond industry certainly wasn’t foreseeable when the brothers’ grandfather started Gardiner Farms, where the almonds are grown today. Like many local growers, he invested in a different crop: cotton. But as the cotton boom of the early 1900s subsided, its prices fell. The San Joaquin Valley’s “holy grail” soil and rare Mediterranean climate (warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters) perfectly suited almonds, a harder-to-grow but more promising crop that virtually no one in the area had planted yet. In the 1980s, the brothers’ father risked the transition, planting their first orchards—and, in order to distribute the nuts, partnered in Treehouse Almonds, a wholesale supplier located 25 miles to the north.
GardinerBrosPortrait“That’s the evolution of a farm,” says John, the “introverted” middle brother, who lives on Gardiner Farms. Today, he oversees everything from the almond trees’ development to the late-summer harvest. “You have to think constantly about how to sustain it.” Sometimes that means adding a new crop. Sometimes it also means adding a new business.

As the almond crop took off, the Gardiners, like most growers, depended on beekeepers who rent out hives to pollinate their almond trees during the bloom. But confronted with an ever-greater need, the brothers, like their father before them, decided to take a leap. Four years ago, they took over United Honey Bee—a beekeeping operation and apiary where, by early spring, more than a billion bees rouse from their winter’s rest.

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Jim, the eldest brother, “runs with the bees,” or tends to them at the apiary (the location of the hives) and transports them from place to place. In preparation for the bloom, he takes the hives to the farm and sticks around to make sure that every tree gets plenty of attention. “Bees are the key to pollinating almonds,” he says. “When it comes to, say, pistachios, a little wind will do it. But almonds need bees, and bees need almonds to build up their strength after winter.”

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Once the trees have been pollinated and, months later, the almonds have been harvested (special machines shake them off the trees and then gather them up), the almonds make their way to Treehouse—and into the capable hands of Joe, the youngest brother. First, they’re hulled and shelled, then blanched, roasted, sliced, slivered, and more. Next, they’re shipped, along with house-made products like almond flour and almond butter, to well-known retailers around the world.

The beauty of this family-driven, three-linked supply chain is that it empowers the brothers to control, from beginning to end, the quality of their almonds. But John, Jim, and Joe strive for more than just quality—they also champion sustainability. One major challenge in growing almonds is managing water waste: using water responsibly in a state that faces frequent drought. But Gardiner Farms relies on ultra-efficient irrigation systems to protect the precious resource. The brothers also cut out waste around the almonds themselves. Once the edible kernel has been removed, the hull is used in cattle feed, and the shell burned for fuel.

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“Sure, our almonds taste good,” says Joe. “But what makes them so special is this legacy that my brothers and I inherited. We want to continue what our grandfather started, and what our father added to it.”

And how often do the brothers actually eat almonds? “I constantly look for restaurant menu items that contain almonds. I eat them every day,” admits Joe. Jim adds: “Especially dark chocolate-covered almonds. Or homemade almond milk.”

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The Magic of the Pixie Mandarin

From the very beginning, the success of the pixie mandarin was improbable. While pixies possess unforgettable flavor, they’re also really hard to grow—much harder than many other citrus varieties. And unlike most citrus, they reach peak flavor in spring, when shoppers are thinking about asparagus, artichokes and peas. But where many farmers would have only seen risk, Friend’s Ranch saw opportunity.

“Maybe we’re half-crazy, I don’t know,” says Emily Thacher, fifth-generation grower at Friend’s, a family farm located in California’s Ojai Valley, about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. “But pixies taste better. And we’re all about growing for flavor.”

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In the 1960s, Thacher’s grandfather, Elmer Friend, planted pixies on a whim. He first learned about them through a family friend who had started growing experimental citrus varieties developed by the University of California, Riverside, one of the nation’s top institutions for citrus research. One of those varieties was the pixie—seedless, easy to peel and remarkably sweet, with less acid than other varieties, but just enough tang to keep you coming back for more.

Unsurprisingly, they’re popular with kids. Growing up on the farm, Thacher and her brother George definitely had their fill. Thacher recalls (or seems to recall), “We literally would eat all of them and nobody ever got any—because they’re so good!” In 1970, Friend became the first farmer in Ojai to start selling pixies from his fruit stand, and they proved so popular that he planted 10 more trees. Today, there are about 240 acres of them in Ojai, and pixies are marketed nationwide.

When the first tree went in the ground, Friend couldn’t have imagined this level of success. As he knew, the researchers who had developed the pixie had their doubts about its commercial viability. The trees must grow for seven to eight years before any fruit begins to appear at all, longer than other varieties of citrus. Even more challenging: pixie trees are “alternate bearing,” which means that once they do start to bear fruit, they only bear a significant amount every other year. “This year a lot of our trees have three or four hundred pounds of fruit on them,” says Thacher. “Next year, the same trees will maybe have 10 pounds.” And like all varieties of citrus, the fruit takes an entire year to grow.

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Outside of Ojai, there was also a fair amount of skepticism to overcome among potential customers, who thought that spring meant the end of citrus season—even in sunny California. But pixies are harvested from March through May (sometimes June). Thacher recalls that people would approach her family’s stand at farmers’ markets in Los Angeles, shake their heads emphatically and say, “No, no, no… tangerine season is done!” And in turn, she would respond, “No, no, no… taste these!” Slowly but surely, Friend’s built a loyal following, which is why, today, Thacher believes that folks who still think of citrus as a wintertime fruit need to start expanding their horizons.

Friend’s philosophy of growing for flavor is most apparent during harvest, when Thacher and her family taste and re-taste the fruit from every tree as the season progresses (and the fruit gets sweeter and sweeter). If it doesn’t taste good, they don’t pick it. Which leads to the truly remarkable aspect of pixies: consistency. Pick up a bag of pixies, and you’ll discover that just about every single one of them tastes equally good.

The quality of the fruit depends heavily on having the ideal climate. Pixies develop the best flavor when long, hot days are punctuated by cool nights. Even in the winter in Ojai, it’s not unusual for daytime temperatures to get up to the mid-80s, then plunge at night. That marked difference in temperature is what develops the ideal balance of sweetness and acidity.

Blogs_Pixies_Asset2Pixies, like any other citrus, start out as tiny green specks inside of blossoms that emerge in the spring (the same time fully grown fruits are picked). But very few actually make it through summer: only one out of every 400 blossoms turns into fruit. “When the fruits are about the size of a frozen pea, a lot of them fall off in June and that’s when the tree decides which ones it’s going to keep,” says Thacher. This is called June drop. “If there’s a bad wind or a heat wave in the early season, a lot of the fruits will drop before they’re able to mature.”

By December, the fruit will have reached picking size, but it’s still green-skinned and difficult to peel. As winter progresses and the temperature drops below 50 degrees at night, the trees reabsorb chlorophyll to conserve energy for the spring, and in turn, the fruit begins to blush orange. By March, it’s finally ripe enough to pick, and the cycle begins again.

All throughout the year, Friend’s has to take on not only the usual duties of caring for fruit trees—fertilizing, watering, pruning—but also hazards unique to California, including wind, wildfire and gophers (or a diabolical combination of all three).

Luckily, they’re not doing it alone. Today, there are about 53 farms growing pixies in the Ojai Valley. They’re small, family-run operations; the smallest one is just half an acre, while the largest is a modest 30 acres. Most are part of the cooperative that Thacher helps run, the Ojai Pixie Growers Association. It provides packing services, helps growers market their fruit and, most importantly, fosters a sense of community.

“We’re all friends and we all work together to make sure the fruit gets sold,” she says. “It’s a daunting task in a year when we have lots of fruit, but we have a lot of fun doing it.”