In his movie "Annie Hall," Woody Allen pokes fun at what his character considers typical California fare: alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast sandwiches.
But, to Rick Sokol and Jerry Weiss, two of North County's largest sprout growers, sprouts are no laughing matter.
Alfalfa sprouts, as well as dozens of other varieties such as wheat grass and buckwheat, are big business not only in North County but across the United States.
"Welcome to the world of gourmet sprouts," says Sokol, owner of the Gourmet Sprouting Company in Leucadia.
From modest beginnings at his kitchen counter more than 10 years ago, Sokol today presides over 20,000 square feet of specially designed growing facilities.
Sokol became involved with sprouts while working in a health-food store in Los Angeles, personally delivering trays of wheat grass and containers of wheat grass juice to stores in the San Fernando Valley.
"I spent five years working seven days a week, growing and delivering sprouts," he said. "I lost lots of crops, but I acquired invaluable hands-on experience. People thought I was crazy when I first started."
Sokol is still a strong proponent of wheat grass, which he says contains 103 of 122 vitamins known to man. He has prepared a lengthy handout on what he describes as the healing properties of wheat-grass products.
These days, Sokol buys sprout seeds from all over the world--mung bean and sunflower seeds from Thailand, and burlap sacks bursting with fenugreek seeds from India and Africa.
"We take no shortcuts when it comes to quality," he said. The Gourmet Sprouting Co. manufactures its own compost. Rounded piles of organic compost made from recycled sprouts and various other compounds slowly mature alongside the wooden, barnlike building that serves as one of the company's greenhouses. Sokol, cupping a handful of the odorless compost in his hands, proclaims: "There's nothing better than this as growing material."
Inside the greenhouse, row upon row of wooden shelves hold dozens of black plastic trays of sprouts in various stages of growth. This particular building, explains Sokol, holds soil-grown crops, while another state-of-the-art structure built more recently shelters those that are hydroponically grown.
Soil-grown sprouts develop a better flavor, says Sokol, but are more labor-intensive to produce.
Indeed, while talking to a visitor, Sokol grabs a hose and sprinkles the sprout trays filled with tender, green sprouts, and soaks the layers of newspaper that keep germinating seeds damp.
"The tough part is following the temperature cycles," he said, lifting a corner of wet newspaper. "I have to be in touch with nature in case I have to change the planting day."
Buckwheat sprouts made a later-than-usual appearance on the market last year because warm weather lingered so long. "Only a handful of sprout growers grow buckwheat," says Sokol. "We harvest and clean it a handful at a time."
Buckwheat lettuce, as it is called, brings to mind the flavor of a crisp Boston lettuce. Radish sprouts, on the other hand, taste unmistakeably like radish, while the delicate and leafy sunflower greens have a nuttier flavor.
The alfalfa sprouts grown in Sokol's modern greenhouse don't require as much human contact because the growth process is mostly computerized. Five giant sprout drums filled with seeds slowly revolve while sprays of water drench them on cue for three days. Once dehulled, the seeds are placed in trays under automatic sprinklers. The sprouts are ready to be harvested--by hand--about six days later.
This crop is by far the largest for Sokol, who ships his sprouts nationwide through brokers in Los Angeles. Visitors are welcomed at the Leucadia facility, however, where they can purchase the sprouts about 20% below retail prices, Sokol says.
Gourmet Sprouting Co. also markets a bag of mixed bean sprouts containing red and green lentils, mung beans, whole peas, adsuki bean, and fenugreek sprouts.
A veteran of 20 years in farming, Jerry Weiss of Rocky Peak Farms in Fallbrook turned to sprout farming 10 years ago.
Alongside fields of fresh herbs, Weiss maintains two greenhouses full of a variety of sprouts.
Like Sokol, Weiss likes to stay in close personal contact with his product.
"I have to make sure they're happy," he says, turning on the automatic sprinklers. "All our sunflower sprouts are grown in passive greenhouses. We use no fossil fuels, only heat from the sun, and cooling from the wind. Most commercial sprouts are grown under artificial lighting. But not ours. We only have natural sunlight, which we feel increases the quality of sprouts."
Like Sokol, Weiss uses organic compost to grow his sunflower, wheat grass, and buckwheat sprouts, while alfalfa, spicy clover and onion require only water.
"We cut and ship the very same day," says Weiss. He eventually hopes to grow his own seed so that his product may be completely organic.