The varieties in the breeder’s high leaf-count Salanova line and gem lettuces are developed mostly in Europe and tested in Salinas and elsewhere in the U.S. It’s a long time before some are chosen by companies like Fresh Express or Mann Packing.
“Even though lettuce is a relatively fast generating crop, it still takes many years,” said Rick Falconer, managing director for Salinas-based Rijk Zwaan USA.
Lettuce crop specialist Braden Hoover determines whether the most promising varieties fit various U.S. slots.
“Sometimes it will take even three years to get that testing done,” Falconer said. Even in the initial years after a commercial release, much of the seed is distributed free for growers to trial. If all goes well, small test plots give way to crop rows and then acres.
“For customers, this is like the initial shopping cart,” Hoover said of the demo trial. “They come in and pick which ones would best fit their blends or packs. It’s almost the first step of elimination. They pick out five or six to look at further.”
“You’re chasing demand, and demand always changes,” he said.
One choice available to growers is between mechanical and hand harvesting of Salanova lettuces. The same varieties can be grown for either and provide cut product or pack whole head in a clamshell.
Rijk Zwaan is marketing the lettuces as an alternative to baby leaf items that grow faster but yield less.
“We’re trying to make the argument that Salanova is more of a matured product,” Falconer said. “These are 50 to 60 days, and have a little better chance to develop a flavor profile, compared to a 30-day baby leaf. It’s longer, but tonnage yield has been very good by comparison.”
Whatever the harvest method, the aim is for a high leaf counts.
“Salanova is all about multiple leaf characteristics,” Hoover said. “On butters, typically you’d take a whole head and shred it. On these, you cut it once and just get perfect individual leaves.”
For uses such as fillet leaves, that results in more useable material.
“On a traditional romaine, they would throw a lot of product away for 10 leaves,” he said. “We’re trying to get the whole head or fillet all in specifications so you’re using nearly 90% for your pack.”
With smaller lettuce leaves, Falconer said, count per head can be more than 150 instead of 20 to 30.
Open head lettuces like green or red romaines offer consistent shape and size for fillet and processing uses. The varieties don’t close to form heads. Solid midribs add weight and extend shelf life, according to Rijk Zwaan.
The fate of two green butter varieties — Aquino and Pascal — illustrates how the breeder tailors offerings to its customers.
Both continue to sell. Aquino, a much lighter green, yields more for a cut deal. Pascal came later in response to shippers who asked for a darker, smaller head to fit their packs.
“That process is the key for us,” Falconer said. “When we start predicting the trends, then we get into trouble. It’s really the customers telling us what they want.”
Rijk Zwaan is not exhibiting at PMA Foodservice, but representatives are attending.