Eating your fruit and vegetables not only is good for you, it's good for the local economy, too.
Agriculture is considered the area's leading economic engine, putting an estimated $3.2 billion into the Yuma economy each year.
Leading the way, as it has for many years, is the production of lettuce that goes into salads, on sandwiches and in tacos.
All together, lettuce is by far the largest crop produced here and with the highest value, said Kurt Nolte, executive director of Yuma County Cooperative Extension. All total, area farmers produce about 90,000 acres of lettuce for a value of more than $304 million.
At one time, iceberg lettuce — so named because it used to be packed in ice in rail cars for transport across the country — led the field. But it's losing ground to romaine and other lettuce varieties considered to be tastier and more nutritious, he said.
While far from the second-largest crop in terms of acres, broccoli has quite an economic punch. The 12,000 acres of broccoli produced here each winter is worth a lot of green — $85.2 million.
Another nearly 16,000 acres are planted in cauliflower, spinach, celery and other healthy vegetables for a total value of $86.1 million.
Once a major citrus producing area, Yuma's industry has declined significantly over the years due in large part to imports of the fruit. Today, the main citrus crop grown here is lemons, a large contributor to Arizona's ranking as the second leading producer of the crop in the U.S. In 2009, Yuma County had 7,155 acres of lemons and crop value of $18.8 million, according to extension statistics. The area also is home to 2,750 acres of tangerines and tangelos for a value of $4 million.
While production of melons here also is less than in past years, it still is a leading crop with a total of 7,100 acres of cantaloupes, watermelons and honey dews worth $48.5 million.
Dates are a rising star for Yuma-area agriculture, Nolte said. Bard remains a major producing area of the crop, but plantings in Yuma now total about 6,000 acres. Yuma also is home to two Medjool date packing plants owned by Datepac, an organization of several date growers, which is in the midst of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar expansion.
In terms of both acreage and value, hay holds a prominent place among the area's top 10 crops, Nolte said. In 2009-10, 31,500 acres was planted in alfalfa hay for a value of $35.4 million. Another 25,600 acres was planted in other varieties of hay crops such as Sudan grass for a value of $10.4 million.
An important animal feed, the hay crops help support the area's livestock industry that includes a beef feedlot and a dairy. And in the winter months, sheep can be found grazing on the fields.
While acreage of one or the other may vary from year to year, depending on markets, cotton and wheat remain two old standbys in the spring months for Yuma County farmers. It all comes down to supply, demand and natural disasters around the world, Nolte said.
For example, cotton prices in 2010 flirted with highs not seen in more than a decade, brought about by a significant freeze in China, flooding in India and Pakistan, a decline in U.S. production over the years and increasing demand for cotton around the globe.
So, while cotton hasn't recaptured its title of the “king” of crops, there has been more in the ground in recent years. Nolte estimated that currently, 24,000 acres of cotton is grown in Yuma in the spring for a value of $18 million.
As for wheat, nearly 40,000 acres is grown here for a total value of about $19.6 million, according to extension statistics. All but a few acres is planted with the registered Desert Durum variety, considered the “Cadillac” of durum wheat for its high quality protein prized around the world for making pasta.
Rounding out the top 10 area crops is the production of seed for a variety of crops, Nolte said. He noted that Yuma farmers grow about 3,000 acres of vegetable seed for a value of more than $1 million. That includes lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, celery, onions and other vegetables.
They also grow alfalfa seed. And they produce most of the world's supply of registered Bermuda grass seed — there are few other spots where the crop will even produce viable seed. In 2009-10, Bermuda grass for seed production was planted on 1,700 acres in the Yuma area, with a value of more than $1.7 million.
Yuma County also is home to roughly 100 acres of flowers grown specifically for its seed for use in gardens and landscapes around the country.