Words: Amber Stott / Photos: Debbie Cunningham
If you visit the largest endive farm in the nation, you won’t be standing in a field below a blue sky. There will be no sun on your face, or dirt on your boots. But you will hear the soft trickle of water through the deep darkness as you’re surrounded by warmth and blanketed in shadows.
Endive (pronounced very French and fancy-like, “on-DEEV”) is a peculiar little crop that can only be grown in the dark.
Any true gardener is surely befuddled by this notion. Don’t plants need four basic elements to grow? Soil. Water. Sun. Air.
Well, sort of.
The story of endive starts in a traditional farm field, like most typical crops. The plant grows from a chicory seed planted in the dirt under a bright, sunny sky. Underground, it forms a thick root, less like a rutabaga, but longer like a fat carrot with thin hairs growing from the sides. Above ground, bushy, knee-high leaves grow. These leaves are mown down, and the precious roots are dug up and harvested.
The chicory roots are left with a tiny cap, or growing bud. This is where the magic happens—later.
The roots take two journeys once harvested from the field. First, they’re placed in dark, frosty cold storage. The roots are naturally filled with life-giving carbohydrates due to the timing of their harvest. If left to their own devices, and given a little sunshine, the remaining growing buds in the roots’ caps would bolt. This process is stalled by temporarily placing the roots in the cold.
Next, the roots are removed from cold storage and taken to a more cave-like setting. In a warmer, temperature-controlled room, cloaked in darkness, the chicory roots are nestled upright in crates. A watering system trickles fertilized liquid over the roots in a constant flow.
Carbohydrates in the roots wake up, feeding the growing bud on top of the plant. Without sunlight to encourage a fast bolt, the endive grows steadily over four weeks in a tight, uniform bulb.
Thus, endive is born.
This complicated process was accidentally discovered in 1831 by Belgian Jan Lammers, who left chicory roots in his cellar, intending to roast and drink them as a coffee substitute. The vegetable has long enjoyed popularity in Europe, but in America, many still wonder what in the world it is.
The role of educating Americans about endive falls to Rich Collins, farmer and owner of California Endive, the largest endive farm in the country.
Collins, like Lammers, discovered endive by accident.
It was May 1978, and Collins was 18 years old, working as a dishwasher at a restaurant called La Salle. One night, the owner threw a VIP birthday banquet. Endive
was on the menu, a vegetable the owner had purchased for four dollars a pound—an expensive price for a mere veggie. For Collins, it was love at first sight.
Collins knew in his heart that he would be a farmer. He grew a half acre of vegetables on his dad’s two-acre property in Carmichael, California. The moment he met his first endive, he was smitten.
“Nobody else was growing it. I knew it was unusual and valuable,” said Collins.
His entrepreneurial mind was set. A week after discovering the vegetable, Collins made his way to Largo Masino Seeds and obtained a package of seeds. He sowed the seeds in a 30-foot garden bed, harvested the roots and put them in his bedroom closet in a can of sand.
His endive grew, but it was bad. Bitter.
That same year, he started college at UC Davis. Yet, even at a school known for its expertise in agriculture, Collins said he was unable to learn anything about the best practice for growing endive. It simply wasn’t being done. He looked for literature to educate himself, and found a single gardening book with only one or two pages of wisdom.
At the time, there was no food movement afoot. There was no Internet. The majority of Americans weren’t eating rare foods. There was no Food Network. There was a lot of canned ravioli and frozen TV dinners.
So, Collins packed his bags and headed to Europe.
“In Europe, endive is like romaine,” said Collins. “It’s a major vegetable there. In America, it’s still a specialty crop.”
The year was 1982. Collins visited Belgium, Holland, France, Spain and Switzerland to learn from local endive farmers.
When he returned to California in 1983, Collins started farming in Vacaville with seed money from one family friend and a five-acre plot from another family friend, Tom Lun. He called it “Rebel Farms,” a nod to the perseverance needed to be a trail blazer in an industry about which folks knew so little.
Collins had enough money to farm, but not enough to pay himself. He got married in 1984. By 1987, the young farmer was working with French and Spanish investors and paying himself $1,000 a month.
Through it all, he was learning, improving and never wavering from his goal.
“It’s all about passion,” said Collins. “Everyone said it couldn’t be done.”
Collins spent 10 years perfecting his craft—and growing his business into the largest endive farm in the country.
Part of that craft is more than farming. Collins has had to increase the food literacy of American consumers, educating them about his crop—what it is, how it’s grown, how to eat it. In a country where the most widely consumed vegetable is the potato, and only 14 percent of Americans eat their recommended daily amount of produce, Collins’ food education takes up a large chunk of his time.
“Educating people is exhausting,” he said. “You have to keep repeating and repeating the message.”
In fact, Collins has been sounding the drum of endive awareness for 30 years. In November, the farm celebrated its anniversary.
In reward for his repetition in endive education, the word about eating endive recently made it all the way to Stephen Colbert’s popular TV show, “The Colbert Report.”
As part of his shtick, Colbert likes to pronounce French words accurately. In one sketch this past fall, he pronounced endive properly, “on-DEEV.” Collins heard the sketch and immediately sent a thank you note. Meanwhile, his daughter, Molly, who runs the company’s social media, started posting online about the mention. They also mailed Colbert a box of endive.
That happened on a Monday. On Tuesday, Collins was live on the set of the show!—a happy bump in endive education for all American viewers coming from someone other than Collins for a change.
Collins notes a shift in the interest of American consumers towards food literacy.
“There’s such an interest in food: who grows it, how it’s grown,” he said. “That didn’t exist in the ’70s. Some farmers lament that, but for me there’s nothing better than an engaged consumer base. They’re the supplier of the demand.”
When Collins first started farming, “the consumer wasn’t there,” he said. But now, “the younger generation wants to eat well,” which is music to a vegetable farmer’s ears.
Collins himself believes in healthy eating. He removed all the vending machines from his farm and replaced them with fresh fruit, nuts and dried fruits that the farm purchases and workers can eat for free. At his core, Collins isn’t just a farmer. He’s a guy who wants to feed others, and feed them well.
He is also interested in growing a healthy community. Despite his many successes, Collins hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s known as a collaborative member of the farming community, working on cutting-edge projects that improve local agriculture.
He leases land to Ruhstaller Beer, itself an innovative business that’s bringing the art of growing local hops back to the Sacramento region.
Collins serves on the board of the California Alliance of Family Farmers, a nonprofit that promotes social justice in farming and supports sustainable agriculture. He also works with Center for Land-Based Learning’s Farm Academy, leasing farmland (an ever-harder-to-come-by commodity) to newly trained farmers.
“Tom Lun gave me the time of day,” said Collins. “I guarantee my five-acre farm was a pain for him and his crew. It’s only right that I reciprocate and help other farmers get started.”
Byline: Amber K. Stott, founding executive director of the nonprofit California Food Literacy Center, enjoys eating rare vegetables and grows her own groceries in Sacramento. She blogs about living la vida locavore at Awake at the Whisk, and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.