Written by The Business Journal Staff
One of the Central Valley’s top wholesale and custom fresh-cut produce companies, 1st Quality has been in business for more than 25 years, with a large customer base that includes school districts, hospitals, casinos and restaurants.
1st Quality’s new venture producing heirloom veggie varieties will take place on a quarter-acre lot behind the company’s facility, which is located at 2445 S. Gearhart Ave. in south Fresno.
A hothouse has also been set up on the lot for seedlings and 1st Quality plans to grow as many as 40,000 transplants of heirloom tomato varieties including Costoluto Genovese, Brandywine Red, Brandywine Pink, Old German, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Purple Calabash, Gold Vault Pineapple, Tigerella, Marvel Stripe, Black Krim, Tigerella, Pink Pong and Crovarese Grape.
The initial process involves seeding flats that will be housed in the hothouse. Once germination begins and plants grow 8 to 12 inches tall, they will be either replanted on site or sold as transplants.
“Not only is this a project to continue what we do best, but also an opportunity to grow with our community,” said Melissa Steward, director of marketing at 1st Quality.
Thanks in part to the so-called “foodie” movement, heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular and more readily available in recent years.
Classified into four categories — family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, mystery heirlooms and created heirlooms — the tomatoes are grown for a variety of reasons, such as historical interest, access to wider varieties and by people who wish to save seeds from year to year.
Although heirloom tomatoes usually have a shorter shelf life, they are generally more disease resistant than most commercial tomatoes and their taste is widely considered to be better.
Steward said the company plans to invite local schools to visit the new project “so children can get directly involved with where their food comes from.”
Founded in 1989 by the Fowler’s Kahaian family, 1st Quality has about 100 employees, including 60 workers at its 35,000-square-foot custom processing facility, which is capable of producing more than 60,000 pounds of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables per day.
A new water recycling process about to be launched at the facility will gather waste water from the company’s rinse tanks and reuse it for the new hothouse and heirloom crop project.
Mike Kahaian, CEO at 1st Quality, said a new drip irrigation system is currently being installed “to avoid wasting water.
Eventually,” he added, “we will not have to use any additional water from the city” to grow the heirloom crops.
“We’re eager to get involved with our local schools to show and teach the students about farming,” said Kahaian. “We’ve already been in communication with Fresno Unified and they’re excited too.”
School tours will also allow students to leave with an heirloom plant to be grown at home.
The heirloom tomatoes and transplants will also be available through 1st Quality’s Farm to Families CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box program.
1st Quality launched Farm to Families in 2015. Steward calls the program “a new and innovative way to promote healthy eating.”
Farm to Families participants can order a pre-selected fresh produce box full of California-grown fruits and vegetables, with each box’s contents reflecting the current growing season. The weekly boxes come with their own recipe booklet that also feature facts about the origin of the produce and its health benefit.
“Farm to Families allows for families to enjoy fresh fruits and veggies they normally wouldn’t buy, as well as trying new things,” Steward said.
The boxes also include fresh-cut ready-to-eat fruit and veggie blend kits. “Our blends consist of pot roast mix, stir fry mix, sangria drink mix, fajita mix and more,” Steward said. “Kits include guacamole and jalapeño poppers. Our homemade fresh pico de gallo is also available.”
Steward said pick-up locations are located throughout the Valley, including Lululemon in Fig Garden, The Bar Method near Herndon and Palm, Old Town Clovis Farmer’s Market as well as at 1st Quality’s Fresno facility.