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Not just the lettuce capital of the world
In Yuma area, many exotic crops also grow
The bins at Yuma's farmers markets overflow with crimson red tomatoes, plump zucchinis and row after row of all varieties of lettuce. Michelle Moll is a regular at the Tuesday morning downtown market where the blogger for the popular site YumaMom.com stocks up on everything from strawberries to leafy greens.
“I like going to the local farmers markets to get great deals on fruits and vegetables. I also like to support local people and businesses.”
But among the produce farmed in Yuma like 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” — or 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 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,” said Nolte. “The new minis are about the size of a softball — a much more manageable size for the average family.”
And while size matters at the dinner table, so does color. Chef Alex Trujillo is a champion of creating what he calls “an authentic experience that people can really enjoy,” one that incorporates colors, flavors and textures in his meals. Trujillo is opening Sunrise Farmer's Market this fall and plans on hawking the eye-catching orange-, purple- and green-colored cauliflower as well as fresh pastries and fare with a local angle.
“The colorful cauliflower is fun and makes the plate so much more interesting,” said Trujillo. “Anything to get people to ear 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 continues to remain 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.