Picking More Than a Peck of Peppers in Southern California

June 14, 2016 08:00 AM

In the middle of the desert, workers have been hurrying since daybreak to beat the heat and pick bell peppers at their peak.

“It’s a race against the clock to get (the bell pepper) picked, packed and shipped as well as on display at the store while it still has a nutritional and flavorful value for the consumer,” says Prime Time International Director of Marketing Mike Aiton.

That’s the science. Prime Time International workers pick peppers and dump into bins by hand, several times, until July. Then, the desert heat takes over in the Coachella Valley.

“We’ll pick one of these fields probably six or seven times," Aiton explains. "Every time we go through, we’re just looking for peppers that have the optimum color."

It adds up to several visits of picking a plethora of colored pepper varieties. Each pepper is green, but it changes to its end color at peak maturity. That transition all depends on the variety.

“These peppers all started off green. As you can see, they’ve turned to orange. So, even though you have a little bit of green on this pepper, it’s going to continue to ripen, even after it’s harvested. By the time a consumer sees this pepper, it will look like this,” says Aiton.

These bins are soon taken from the field, to the packing house where they’re stored and separated by lot and harvest crews.

“This facility is capable of probably 35,000 cartons a day maximum. It’s common for us to run 22,000 to 28,000 a day,” says Prime Time International Director of Packing Operations Jack Schmidt.

That’s where the race continues to get the peppers in cold storage. “Timing is critical. We want to get the pepper packed and cooled to 45 degrees as soon as possible," Schmidt says. "The sooner you get it to 45 degrees, the longer you extend its shelf life." 

There are two different types of lines in the facility to speed up the process. One has workers sorting, sizing and grading the peppers into packages. Another is a new camera technology, which is in its first year of use at the packing facility. 

“It rotates the pepper under the camera," taking many different photos of the vegetable, according to Schmidt. "That includes five, six, sometimes eight (pictures of) the pepper, depending on the size of each pepper,” says Schmidt.

The process of producing peppers is both simple and complicated.  “Workers, water, weather--those are our three big headaches,” Aiton says.

Aiton says while water is a concern in the state, it’s not as critical in the Coachella Valley as other parts of California. “Coachella Valley for us is one of the cheapest places to grow water. There’s a huge underground aquifer here. Plus, we have water rights from the Colorado River. So, we’ve been able to withdraw water from that,” he explains.

Until then, the company focuses on what it can control, distributing peppers onto grocery shelves.

Schmidt says red peppers are the most popular variety. Retailers are also asking for more specialized packaging, which is a growing trend. 

Pepper Harvest Underway in Coachella, California

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