Unique crops are stars of festival
Some of the many unique crops and culinary trends emanating from the Yuma area will be on display during the 2013 Yuma Lettuce Days Festival.
Among the produce farmed in Yuma such as lettuce, spinach and other dinner table staples lurk some rather unusual edibles that are creeping into mainstream America one bite at a time.
“When we talk about some of our minor crops,” said Kurt Nolte, “we are talking about arugula, for example, that's grown on less than 100 acres of land” — small potatoes compared with the hundreds of thousands of acres of crop varietals that blanket the Yuma area.
Nolte, the executive director for Yuma County Cooperative Extension, groups the minor crops into several categories, including produce, spices, seed crops and biofuels.
Patty pan squash, eight-ball zucchini, salad peas, red head romaine, red celery, salad savoy, brightly colored “Carnival Cauliflower,” and other niche items — what Nolte calls “mainstream produce with an exotic twist” — are grown on relatively small fields around the Yuma area.
Developing markets like olives are also making headway in Yuma on small plots of 40-50 acres, as are the ever-popular mini categories.
“It's wasteful to have a big head of lettuce when most folks only eat half,” Nolte said. “The new minis are about the size of a softball — a much more manageable size for the average family.”
The unique crops are all natural. They are not genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Nolte said.
“There are no GMO food crops grown in the region. There is transgenic (GMO) cotton and some GMO alfalfa varieties available, but that's about it. We have a field or two of GMO field corn, but it is not significant. All of the vegetable, fruit and nut crops have been developed either by Mother Nature or by traditional breeding techniques.”
Some of the foods on display during Lettuce Days will include Salad Savoy, a cruciferous vegetable; Bright Lites, a new generation of Swiss chard with stems of gold, orange, pink, red, or white; and Carnival Cauliflower, which comes in bright colors such as purple and orange.
The specialty crops were developed as part of Salad Savoy Corporation's motto of “Color, Taste and Nutrition,” said John Moore, president of the company.
“Attractive colors draw attention to vegetables that have great taste and nutrition. Generally speaking, colorful crops (including green) are more nutritious.”
Salad Savoy Corporation ships its niche crops, one-third of which are grown in the Yuma area, all over North America.
Such colorful crops are important at the dinner table, said Chef Alex Trujillo, a champion of creating what he calls “an authentic experience that people can really enjoy,” one that incorporates colors, flavors and textures into meals.
“The colorful cauliflower is fun and makes the plate so much more interesting,” Trujillo said. “Anything to get people to eat more veggies.”
Besides the produce and spices like spearmint, basil, dill and sage, there's the just plain bizarre. Guayule is harvested for its sticky properties and is used in the production of rubber. For example, gloves for folks who have an allergy to latex are made from the Guayule plant.
There's lamb's ear, which looks exactly as the name suggests and is in the mint family. The velvety soft fuzz on the leaves is used as an alternative for cotton fibers.
And as food safety remains in the headlines, usually for such things as listeria outbreaks or salmonella, farmers are developing fruits that are resistant to the bacteria that can devastate an entire crop and worse, cause serious illness. The smooth-skinned orange honeydew melon is grown as an alternative to the cantaloupe, the rough skin of which is notorious for trapping bacteria.
So, do Yuma's prodigious fields live up to their claim as the winter vegetable capital of the world? You bet. Oh, and don't forget the beer. Yuma's rarefied two-row barley is used in none other than the great American lager itself: Budweiser.