Hi friends! How are you? I hope you’re enjoying a nice weekend… and had a nice week, too, for the matter! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Unfortunately I’ve been unable to get any kind of WiFi signal for the past few days, but I’ve got a lot to tell you about!
Green Giant Niblets: Corn fields to canned corn
Our second day at the Green Giant Valley Visit began, as you might guess, at breakfast! I love the variety that breakfast buffets have, especially when it’s filled with stuff I love to eat!
I was happy to find that the big pot of oatmeal was steel-cut, and not at all gummy or watery. I added granola, brown sugar, raisins, and my own almonds; eaten alongside fresh fruit and smoked salmon.
As we were finishing up breakfast, we found a special guest waiting for us: Sprout, who lives in the Valley along with the Green Giant himself!
Leaving the hotel, we took the bus to Le Sueur, MN, to visit Green Giant’s Agricultural Research facility. There, we introduced ourselves and talked about our favorite vegetables (Brussels sprouts took #1!) and learned a little bit about the company.
1903: Minnesota Valley Canning Company is founded, canning corn and peas
1925: An unusually large pea, called the Green Giant, is introduced
1929: Vacuum-packed corn, the Nibblet, is introduced
1937: “Picked at the fleeting moment of perfect flavor” advertising campaign is introduced; they guarantee “8 hours from field to freezer,” some Minnesota-grown veggies take as little as 2 hours
1950: Company officially becomes Green Giant
1961: Frozen vegetables are introduced
1979: Green Giant merges with Pillsbury
2001: General Mills purchases Green Giant
Green Giant has some lofty goals: 1) To make people healthier through vegetables, 2) to double vegetable consumption in the US by 2025, and 3) to be the #1 admired food brand by 2025. They are always looking for ways to increase sustainability, lower pesticide use, and require as little land as possible while maximizing food production. As you can see from the diagram below, the yield of corn has greatly increased (from 82 cases to 350) while the land needed to produce each case (from 500 to 120 square feet) has decreased since the 1950s.
Green Giant is recognized by the Environmental Proctection Agency as having a low carbon footprint, and has reduced their pesticide usage by 86% from 2000 to 2009. How do they do this? Using Integrative Pest Management (or IPM, to use Green Giant lingo). They increase fertilization, and look for ways to grow their crops to be naturally resident to insects and fungus. They have also partnered with the Nature Conservancy, and convert their vegetable waste to energy to power cooking and heating needs in surrounding areas.
Why Minnesota? The farm land is ideal, with rich black soil. There’s also a lot of rainfall in summer (as we experienced firsthand while on our dinner cruise!) so there’s not a lot of need for outside irrigation.
Why not organic? This was probably the most common question I received, and one I was curious to know the answer to as well. General Mills actually does have organic lines within the company: Cascadian Farms for frozen foods, and Muir Glen for tomatoes. Still, cost permitting, I prefer to buy frozen fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.
While it is difficult to have large yields using only organic farming, Green Giant has learned organic practices from Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen that they implement in their vegetable production. This means composting, using drip irrigation (less water needed to ensure they’re using healthy soil), reducing pesticide use and increasing soil fertilization. Green Giant does not use genetically modified seeds or ingredients!
Vegetables are graded weekly, using A (Green Giant quality), B and C (both sub-par) grades. They are ranked for quality (sweetness, color, texture, flavor), stability (disease, insect-resisting herbicide, weather tolerance), and performance (how much/ quality of food produced). Many of the farm growers have been with Green Giant for years and years. Still, lower-quality produce isn’t thrown away as waste. It’s used in food service products like soups instead. And as far as food safety is concerned, since General MIlls has owned Green Giant (2001), there have been no food recalls. (Thermal freezing also does a good job of killing illness-causing germs and bacteria.)
We visited two spots where we were prohibited to bring in cameras or cell phones. The first was the seed vault, where there were 10,000 hybrid lines of vegetable seeds and 200,000 seed packets! It was like a big walk-in cooler filled with recipe boxes holding little envelopes, quaintly hand-written with dates and numbers.
For the second place, we had to don hairnets, earplugs and hard hats (we were a sexy bunch!) to tour the test plant. It smelled like corn, so we knew we were in the right place! Green Giant farmers produce 10,000 hybrids of sweet corn per summer, analyzing each variety’s yield at the end of the year. Inside the factory, we watched as:
Ears of corn came in, still wrapped in husks, and were put in buckets. –> Corn is put through a husking machine that shucks the corn. –> Corn moves along belt where the stem is broken off by hand, and then arranged on a different belt. –> The belt feeds the corn cobs into the cutting station, which shaves off the kernels. –> The kernals go through a washer, which removes corn silk, insects, and damaged kernels. –> The corn is then either flash-frozen or canned; canned foods are cooked inside the can, which acts like a Pressure Cooker pot.
Fundamentals of Canning
1) Get correct internal temperature for the correct amount of time
2) Rotate cans after cooking to mix the contents
Sounds relatively simple, right? It was a pretty big operation, however, and required a lot of man and machine power!
We got back on the bus and drove to Worth Farm, where we learned a little more about corn hybridization and hybrid breeding.
Of the 10,000 seeds that are tested, there are 3000 new hybrids of sweet corn per year. Hybrid breeding is both complex and basic: it requires knowledge and understanding of biology, but corn has been harvested the same way for years. The seeds are harvested here and shipped to Chile, where those seeds are then harvested and returned to the US. This is the same kind of breeding that’s been implemented since 1926!
We got to explore the fields a bit, even picking- and tasting!- the raw corn. Kimberly and I had fun modeling our new Green Giant-hued boots.
We weren’t the only ones, though… for city girls- and even country girls!- cornfields are pretty magnificent to behold. (And they make good subject matter for science fiction films! Just saying…)
Do you buy canned or frozen corn? How do you use it? I’ve used both canned and frozen corn in soup and Mexican recipes. In fact, some summer corn chowder sounds pretty good right about now…