April 27, 2006

Calif. Farmer Grows Endive in the Dark

RIO VISTA, Calif. - Rich Collins was 18 when he tried to grow endive in a closet at his family's home, beginning his quest to perfect the odd technique that produces the blanched, bullet-shaped vegetable.

Farming always interested Collins, who grew up in the Sacramento suburbs. The summer before he left for the University of Califorinia, Davis, he washed dishes at a French restaurant and often chatted with the chef about crops.

"'This is what you should grow,' he told me. 'I paid $4 a pound for this stuff,'" Collins recalled.

The chef's advice to grow endive - specialty greens used in salads and appetizers - stuck with Collins and he began experimenting.

Though his first closet crop produced only enough for one salad, he has since perfected his growing techniques. Last year, Collins' company - now called California Vegetable Specialties - produced about 30 million heads of endive. U.S. consumption of the vegetable has more than doubled since Collins began growing it in the early 1980s, according to the Agriculture Department.

"People's tastes have evolved. They're demanding variety and quality. They're watching all these cooking shows with more international cuisine and saying, 'What's that?'" he said.

Europe is still the largest producer and consumer for endive. The plant was discovered there by accident in 1830 by a Belgian farmer who left chicory roots in his cellar and came back to find that they had grown crunchy white leaves.

The millions of heads of endive produced by Collins' company constitute about 1 percent of the total global market. But success did not come easily.

At 22, he trekked across Western Europe for nine months, visiting growers, universities, seed companies and equipment manufacturers. Using what he'd learned, he started Rebel Farms in 1983.

"Everyone told me it couldn't be done here. And for the first few years they were right," he said.

Crop after crop failed. He estimated his first year's revenues at $3,000.

In the late 1980s, he joined forces with Darome Group of International Companies, a French company that owns food businesses worldwide. With its backing, he expanded his five-acre operation and buy better equipment.

"After a lot of years of learning, we're finally hitting our stride," Collins said.

Today, he grows endive in a more controlled way.

The endive grows in dark, moist chambers containing trays that tower more than 22 feet high. Water and fertilizer constantly flow through an intricate network of tubes, creating a vertical farm field.

The carrot-like chicory roots are grown outside until they sprout green foliage. It's lopped off, but the bud remains. A second bud is grown in the clammy rooms behind black tarps.

Growing the endive in the dark makes it less bitter, Collins said. The yellow-colored variety gets its hue from leftover chlorophyll in the root. The dark red, radicchio-like variety is from Italy and gets its color genetically.

Most of California Vegetable Specialties' endives go to retailers such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods through wholesale distributors, though the company also still sells directly to restaurants.

Collins said the company will keep expanding, possibly with new crops. An experimental tray of blanched dandelions is growing in one of the dank rooms.

"I always wanted to be a farmer," Collins said. "This isn't how I thought I'd do it, though."


On the Net:

California Vegetable Specialties: http://www.endive.com