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'Race on' for winter veg crop
While other parts of the country will soon be turning white with the approach of winter, Yuma is beginning its annual transformation to green.
That's the color of fields that soon will be sprouting this area's vegetable crops that keep much of the nation, and even other countries, supplied with fresh lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower during the cold winter months.
It's also the color of the winter vegetable season's impact on the local economy. Production of winter vegetables in the desert Southwest is a nearly $1 billion industry, employing tens of thousands of people and resulting in a bustle of activity between fields and coolers to trucks that transport the food across North America.
Some crops are already in the ground, reported Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension.
Farmers have been planting transplants of such crops as cauliflower, fennel and select broccoli varieties that were started in a greenhouse. Use of the transplants allows farmers to get a jump-start on the crops. Also, transplants may be more uniform and stronger since direct-seeded cole crops in the late summer Yuma climate are subject to severe temperature extremes and periodic heavy insect pressures.
And about now, farmers will start planting lettuce seeds in the ground, Nolte said.
“So the race is on.”
Each new season starts off with a degree of uncertainty because of weather, insect pressure, markets and availability of labor, he observed.
First the weather, which Nolte said may be wetter than usual with a predicted El Niño season that tends to bring more storms and rain to this area. More rain could mean delays in planting schedules, muddy conditions for field workers and equipment, and plants more prone to disease because of the moisture.
The higher-than-usual humidity that made July and August more miserable is a symptom of the onset, he said. And it's brought another challenge: heavier insect pressure that growers are having to manage during the early part of the season.
But that's all part of farming.
“Growers have to deal with the environment and what Mother Nature gives you,” Nolte said.
As for the market, that goes back to last year when the poor economy, overplanting and almost perfect growing conditions resulted in an “average to below average season,” with supply outstripping demand for lettuce and other vegetables, Nolte said.
Therefore, he said, he expects there will be fewer acres planted in produce this year in the desert Southwest. “Growers are reporting there will be a reduction of 10 to 15 percent.”
Last year, farmers planted around 45,000 to 50,000 acres each of head lettuce and romaine and about 20,000 acres of leafy greens, Nolte said. He noted that in the past, head lettuce was by far the leading crop, but romaine, with its better flavor and more nutrition, is now almost equal to it in volume.
According to 2008-09 agricultural statistics, the Yuma area also grows about 12,000 acres of broccoli, 3,500 acres of cauliflower, 6,800 acres of spinach and 3,000 acres of other vegetables.
A 10 percent reduction in lettuce production will have implications for packing plants, Nolte said. He's heard that coolers in Imperial County may not operate this year, with crops grown in El Centro and Brawley being brought to Yuma for processing.
“I haven't heard of any closures here,” he said, that is other than the consolidation by three produce shippers of their salad plants to California.
“But we still have 22 vegetables coolers in operation here.”
And when Dole decided not to open its salad plant in Yuma, Green Gate opened, he noted. “So we still have nine salad plants in operation. A lot of salad is still being made here.”
The vegetable industry is labor-intensive, requiring the hands of an estimated 45,000 people in the fields, coolers and salad plants during the peak of the season from mid-November through March, Nolte said.
But as the labor force ages and workers perhaps weary of the time-consuming process of crossing the border each morning to work, the vegetable industry is seeking other options.
One is agriculture's push for immigration reform that would include a less burdensome guest worker program. Another is research into mechanization.
“The traditional way to harvest is with a person in the field with a sharp knife,” Nolte said.
But that might be changing.
This will be the second year private companies will be trying out mechanical harvesters on head lettuce and romaine in Yuma fields, he said. In addition, a researcher for the University of Arizona Yuma Agriculture Center has been working on a mechanical thinning machine.
“It's all driven by a shortage of labor,” Nolte said. “It may not be an issue this year, but I expect it's coming down the road.”