It's an overcast day in February as I pass the steely Connecticut River and monotone farm fields that hug the shoulder of Rte. 5 in South Deerfield. In summer, this stretch of road overlooks a serene agricultural scene. Tractors often putter back and forth, and farm stands offer a wide variety of crops grown in the fertile river soil.
Turning into Chang Farm on this winter day, I spot a large nondescript building behind the farmhouse. Within minutes, I find myself touring a sterile-looking factory, tricked out with protective gear in the form of a hair net and blue booties. Not exactly what one would expect in farm country.
Yet this is a natural extension of a family farm that began over 35 years ago. The Chang Farm inhabits 76 acres of land, and provides Asian produce and shizandra berries to the local food market. Much of the food is sold at Amherst Chinese, the restaurant Dr. Tso-cheng Chang founded in 1973. Thirty years ago he began toying with the idea of sprout production; inside this drab building, the Chang family's farming heritage grows strong, albeit within stainless steel bins.
Sidney, Chang's son, has overseen the subsequent growth through three expansions to the building's current size. When I arrive, he is talking on the phone in a bland office. He is businesslike and wears a blue hair net. I soon don the same, and sign a form stating that I don't have the flu or any exposed cuts. Then we head out into the loud humming of the factory.
We splash through puddles of foamy liquid as we enter each warehouse-sized room, sterilizing our booties (the forklift tires that zoom past are also disinfected in the puddles). Blue lights shine at each automated doorway to repel any bugs who might get the crazy idea to enter this inhospitable environment. The factory utilizes "sanitary design"—from the floor's built-in microbial silver ions to the lack of horizontal piping or electrical tubing that might collect dirt and bacteria. The facility was designed by a company in Springfield that designs food processing plants for much larger clients.
Everything in the building is automated. We enter the control room where computer monitors glow along one wall; the other is covered with switches and wires. Numbers and charts fluctuate onscreen.
"I learned as I needed," Chang explains when asked if he went to school for this type of work. "What do I need to know? I'll go study that." That's his mantra for running the business. His father acquired a doctorate in plant science from U Mass-Amherst in 1973.
The first sign of plant life comes as we open one of many towering bay doors along a wide, bright hallway. A fragrant, earthy smell emerges from the dark. Several giant stainless steel bins hold a fresh batch of sprouts still beginning to explode from their seed pods. Automated sprayers periodically moisten the bins.
Seeds need the right moisture level and temperature to begin growing, using each seed's stored energy to create the first shoot. This can happen in the dark, and that's standard practice in the industry, since customers prefer pale, nearly-white sprouts.
The last bay in the hallway holds the end product: sprouts that are two or three days old. A whitish-green pillow of pale sprouts has unfurled simultaneously; they billow from tubs like cupcake tops.
The tiny plants are wheeled into a giant, cavernous main room. Tender green sprouts curl against each other, cascading down the conveyor belt and creating moist, tender mountains. They are rinsed and bagged quickly, then put into giant walk-in refrigerators. Trucks leave daily for destinations all over the East Coast, mostly selling to wholesale restaurant suppliers and Asian supermarkets. About 10 percent of the product is sold in American grocery chains.
The super-sterility of the environment may seem a little unnecessary for these seemingly harmless plants, but Chang has learned a lot since the beginning. After outbreaks of E.coli and other bacteria from raw sprouts in other parts of the country made national news in the late 1990s, the FDA warned against the consumption of raw sprouts. A national advisory committee studied the cause of the outbreaks and came out with a new set of regulations to reduce the risk of contamination.
Chang describes the challenge as "a race against time." Any fresh produce that is served raw encounters the same challenges. "Bacteria is everywhere," he explains, "but if you start with everything as clean as possible, the better your product is going to be. The key is the environment they're grown in."
Chang estimates that there are two or three other companies of this size in the country. "I've been to a lot of factories," he remarks, looking around at his expansive building, "and I'm very proud of this facility I have."
Despite all the certifications, sterilizations and automated processes, Chang still fancies himself a farmer: "You know, you plant a seed, you water it, and you harvest it and wash it and pack it—that's farming, it's a plant." But he's had to learn a lot about food processing industry standards to make his sprouts a viable product. "The Food and Drug Administration told me that I'm not a farmer, I'm a food processor. I got pretty angry!" he laughs. But it's easy to see the disconnect.
As it turns out, local regulators had a hard time seeing the connection, too. After an expansion in 1998, Chang thought he had plenty of space. "I thought, that was it, how am I going to sell all the bean sprouts I grow here?" he recalls. Four years later his plant was running at full capacity, and he began seeking permits to build a bigger space: "I fought and fought and finally we got all the permits—it took six years." The addition was completed in 2010.
Chang says the facility produces 35,000 pounds of sprouts every day; it's been expanding by 20 percent per year. Still, there's a long way to go before he'll make much of a profit.
"I don't know, I'm just really into growing bean sprouts," he says when asked why he's poured his life —and life savings—into this venture. "I loved the taste of beans sprouts when I was little, so I'm working with what I like to eat. I love the thing I do."