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Growing lettuce from planning to harvest
Long before the seed goes in the ground, lettuce growers are busy planning and preparing for the crop that will keep most of the salad bars in the nation supplied with the leafy green vegetable throughout the winter.
Lettuce grower John Boelts shared the many steps and the time line it takes to produce a crop.
• January-May: Starting in January and going into May, farmers are trying to get a sense of what customers need and planning how to meet that need.
• June-July: Farmers are putting together a schedule for planting dates, fine tuning contractual relationships to process and market their product, and working on equipment to make sure everything is in good condition. Planning is a juggling act, figuring out when they need to plant and what variety, given the time of year, so the crop will be ready when the buyer wants it. For example, lettuce planted in September takes 60 to 100 days to grow to maturity, while crops planted in November can take from 90 to 140 days.
• June-August: Growers are doing heavy tillage of the soil for proper drainage, salt remediation, soil conditioning and preparation of the beds on which the crop will be planted.
Planting and cultivation
• Planting starts in September and continues throughout the season to meet harvesting requirements.
• Sprinkler pipe is set out to water the fields until the stand is established and seedlings have poked out of the ground.
• Thinning crews space out the plants to optimize growth.
• The field is irrigated two to six times.
• Fertilizer may be applied.
• Pest control measures may be needed.
All this preparation requires close coordination with a wide range of support services and people, Boelts said. “It's not just farmers. It also takes sprinkler pipe rentals, seed salesmen, pest advisors, farm labor contractors and chemical and fertilizer companies working in concert.”
• Harvesting begins in mid-November of the first planting and continues into March or April with subsequent plantings.
• Some lettuce is wrapped and packed in the field, then sent to the packing shed for cooling and loading onto trucks for distribution around the country.
• Other heads are sent to salad plants, where they are washed, chopped and mixed with other ingredients and packaged as salad mixes.
“It's like a child,” Boelts said of the crop. “Seventy days of nurturing, then you hope you have a good market. It costs from $3,000 to $6,000 an acre to grow lettuce, from preparations and planting to harvest, with land rent, chemicals, seeds, labor and equipment. You hope it's worth something when you harvest.”
After the harvest
• Some growers might follow a lettuce crop with a second vegetable crop such as spring mix or spinach.
• Other growers will plant a rotational crop, such as durum wheat, cotton or spring melons.
• And it's time to start the cycle over, evaluating the season and planning for the next year.
Boelts said that about 100,000 acres of vegetables are produced in the Yuma area and Bard, with another 50,000 acres in Imperial County.