Peas In Our Time -- Before This Popular Green Vegetable Rolls Onto Your Plate It Follows An Amazing High-Tech Processing Adventure

A perfect, blue-sky morning. A light breeze caresses fields of green peas, and a big old farmhouse, set amid towering shade trees, presents the solid look of a traditional farm.

But tradition was never like this - at least not for the crop and its path to your table. Before they wind up on somebody's plate, the peas being harvested now in these Snohomish County fields will travel a high-tech trail that would astonish any peas of the past.

They're destined for freezing at Twin City Foods Inc. in nearby Stanwood, a company that touts its technology and says it's the largest independently owned processor of frozen peas in the country - meaning owned by a family instead of an outside corporation.

Twin City Foods will be 50 years old next year and is steeped in family tradition. Its 75-year-old founder, Arne Lervick, though semi-retired, is chairman of the board and his son, Roger, is president.

The dynasty goes further: Roger's brother John is executive vice president; his cousin, Mark Lervick, is vice president of operations; and his daughter, Tamara Lervick-O'Donnell, is sales coordinator.

Even Arne Lervick's father, Ole, had a part in Twin City's beginnings, bankrolling Arne and his late brothers, Arthur and Magnar, in the venture. A Norwegian immigrant, Ole worked in a logging camp early in the century and then built his own successful logging company.

But the family's rustic past fades from mind when you watch thousands of peas bumping along conveyor belts in the Stanwood plant. Humans have been eating peas for at least 11,000 years but did not until recently send them on quite this kind of journey. The peas encounter:

-- Computer-controlled laser beams that detect peas of the wrong color or density and trigger a pulse that rejects them. The beams perform 1,000 scans per second as peas race by at a speed of 535 feet per minute. In an hour, 30,000 pounds of peas move through each inspection line.

-- Flash-freezing tunnels where peas are frozen in a 60-mile-per-hour wind at a nippy 28 degrees below zero.

-- A cold-storage facility that holds 20 million pounds of frozen peas. Another in Arlington holds 15 million pounds.

Frozen peas are stored in big bins until being packaged under many brand names - but never Twin City's, since the company packs only for other labels, such as store brands and sometimes big names like Green Giant.

The Stanwood plant also packs corn, in late summer. Four other Twin City plants - in Ellensburg, Prosser, Idaho and Michigan - process carrots, beans, potatoes, peas or corn, depending on the location.

Western Washington once had many produce-processing plants. They dwindled as development ate up farmland.

Roger Lervick sees development pressing in on the rich Snohomish and Skagit County farmlands that supply the Stanwood plant. "We're really concerned about this, as non-agricultural development grows and expands into this area." So far, though, there's plenty of crop to keep the plant humming along briskly. This state ranks third in the country - after Minnesota and Wisconsin - in growing peas for freezing or canning.

Americans buy nearly all of their peas processed, not fresh. Although some swear that nothing compares with fresh, tender peas straight from the pod, many believe good frozen ones come pretty close.

During pea season, from early July to late August, Twin City's Stanwood employment swells to 700. Some workers return season after season, and the Lervicks are proud of the number of youths who have paid for college by working for them.

The company works with about 150 pea farmers, representing 10,000 acres. But in a sense, Twin City itself is a farmer. Under agreements with each grower, the company decides when peas will be planted and harvested, to avoid overwhelming the processing plant with too many peas at once. The company sprays for pests and owns and runs the harvesting machines.

The recent sizzling temperatures had growers and processors nervous, since hot weather speeds ripening. To make sure they're picked at the right time, Twin City runs sample peas from each field through a "tenderometer," which measures their tenderness or firmness by squeezing them and gauging the amount of pressure needed to squash a pea.

Company executives meet every morning to make critical harvesting decisions - a tricky business of balancing ripeness with capacity at the plant, which runs 24 hours a day at the height of pea season. Tensions can run high, says Roger, "because this is our life."

At this time of year, on farms like the one near Stanwood, huge harvesting machines crawl slowly over the pea fields, eating up the vines, removing the pods, shelling the peas, then spitting the vines and pods back onto the ground. The peas are dumped into trucks and hauled to the processing plant.

Like the high-tech plant machinery, the harvesters are smarter and faster than harvesters of old, and their cost reflects it - about $250,000 apiece for new models.

They reflect the ever-changing nature of America's massive food industry - and of a company with a long history in a small Washington town.

Twin City Foods offers public tours of its Stanwood plant. For information, call 206-629-2111.