The story of the Salinas Valley’s success as the Salad Bowl of the World is only partly about farming. The other part is about processing – how to get fresh vegetables cooled, packaged and shipped to points across the world before they turn to mush.
A century ago, it was an experimental idea using ice. Today, you can go to a grocery store in New York and buy a head of lettuce or a ready-to-eat bagged salad grown, harvested and packaged in Salinas.
But the cooling facilities that put Salinas on the modern agricultural map are aging. And with virtually no vacant industrial space, city and industry leaders are looking to the future of where they will build out and develop more efficient technology. Consider companies like Growers Ice, which has been in business since 1936. Today it runs a 400,000-square-foot cooling facility in an industrial neighborhood in South Salinas. “We started looking and said, ‘Boy, we have got to figure out a way to start updating these facilities,” says CEO Jim White. “You look around, we’ve got over 4 million square feet of processing and cold storage facilities within about a 60-mile radius of our campus. It’s all 40-plus years of age as well. But no one has reached into their pocket to invest and upgrade these facilities. I said: well, we’re going to do that.”
For White, that meant a busy circuit of pitching investors. “Cold storage is a pretty hot asset class around the nation,” he says. But it took sometimes 10 pitches a day, beginning in 2019, to land a deal with an investment partner he declines to name at this point, but which he says has committed $1 billion over the next five years.
Growers Ice is now in escrow with Uni-Kool Partners, seeking to acquire 36 acres just a mile down the road to build a state-of-the-art campus. (Once that’s up and running, hopefully by 2026, they’ll rebuild their existing site too – all for an estimated cost of $550 million.)
That 36-acre property is known as Parcel C, and it’s a tiny slice of Uni-Kool’s 257-acre property known as the Ag Industrial Center. The center was approved in concept by the Salinas City Council in 2010, but since then it’s sat empty, without a development proposal.
White says Growers Ice was in talks to buy the whole thing. But besides land cost, there’s a need for infrastructure: There are no roads, sewer lines, or water lines. The city’s ag industrial wastewater treatment plant needs to be expanded.
While all of those costly improvements stalled, along came a proposal in 2021 for a project that has nothing to do with agriculture: A 2.9-million-square-foot warehouse with 50 loading docks for Amazon.
City leaders were enthusiastic about the proposal, even though it seemed to me to be bad news – the shipping behemoth is known to treat workers basically like underpaid robots. Besides, the idea for the property was ag industrial. Per a city report: “Major types of uses anticipated include: agriculture processing, and uses that produce products, equipment, or services that support agricultural related industries.” A celebration of the Salad Bowl of the World, not a delivery behemoth shipping toothpaste and electronics.
Facing rising construction costs, Amazon walked away. Growers Ice still hopes to close on its 36-acre Parcel C – and if the deal goes through, it will kickstart development here in the right direction, the direction as envisioned 12 years ago when the plan was approved.
It’s a priority for Megan Hunter, director of community development. “Salinas is well-situated to continue to do very well in ag,” she says. “We really need the ag industrial center.”
But Salinas will also need cash: “A big player who has deep pockets and a connection to this area could be key to unlocking the redevelopment,” Hunter says. “That’s how we have always seen it – deep pockets are needed, and government just doesn’t have deep pockets.”
It’s likely public-private partnership is the key. In June, City Council approved two engineering contracts for $1.9 million to begin work on expanding the industrial wastewater system; later this month, they’re expected to consider a contract to get $1 million from Growers Ice toward those studies.
These are tiny incremental steps, but they are critical – and if they get done, the ag industry will have a long-term home right here in the Salad Bowl. Amazon can go somewhere else.