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Farmer: Supply, demand decide crops
The Yuma Sun is taking a behind-the-scenes look at agriculture in Yuma. This story is one in an ongoing series. Here are some other stories in this series:
- Tiny lettuce seed very picky about where it grows
- Series to trace area's vegetable season
- Yuma-area chemical companies advise farmers on controlling critters
- Yuma farmland powered by billions of gallons of water
- Cooling houses' techniques keep produce fresh
- Technology, philosophies alter farmworking conditions
The “big vegetable rat race,” as local farmer Steve Alameda calls it, begins in April or May. It begins with a deal, a partnership with a shipper.
In the case of Alameda, co-owner and manager of Top Flavor Farmers and president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, the shipper lets him know what it wants, how much it wants and when it wants it.
“They tell us how many acres they want us to grow, how many boxes, how many pounds they want. That translates into acres. That translates to a plan,” Alameda said.
It's all about supply and demand. “It starts with someone wanting that parsley.”
The market is constantly changing. About 15 to 20 years ago, 85 percent of what he grew was iceberg lettuce. Now iceberg lettuce is about 40 percent of what he grows.
And lettuce is no longer just lettuce. Now people want baby greens and a variety of lettuces. Some of them are packaged together into ready-to-eat salad containers.
“It's still lettuce, but it's different types and it's more nutritious and flavorful. The trend is towards flavor and nutrition,” Alameda said.
Once the shipper gives him a harvest date, he starts counting backwards, trying to figure out when to put the crops in the ground.
Then Alameda has to procure land, which he leases from the Quechan Tribe.
“We have relationships with our landlords. It keeps rents reasonable and allows crop rotation, which can be expensive. It's a long-term relationship,” he explained.
Then he matches the crops with the land. Some require warmer weather or a certain type of soil. Bard, Calif., just across the river from Yuma, is colder in the winter; Yuma Valley is warmer.
But Bard is milder from October to November, and Dome Valley and the lower Yuma Valley is colder the first part of September.
“It's like putting together a puzzle,” Alameda said.
He's been farming in the Yuma area for 25 years. He usually farms 2,000 acres and employs about 2,000 to 3,000 people.
Contrary to what some believe, farming is a year-round business.
“We go all summer. There's always something going on, even in June, July. It's slower, but there's still tillage and summer crops,” he said.
In the summer, Top Flavor grows melons, wheat, cotton, cilantro and alfalfa. In the winter, the crops are lettuce and a variety of vegetables, such as bok choy, parsley, spinach, baby greens and broccoli.
“Iceberg lettuce is still the biggest plant. We plant it the first week of September to the end of December.”
Land prepping and tilling for the winter crops begin in July and August. Through laser leveling, farm workers loosen the ground with rippers.
Alameda drove to a field where he grew cilantro during the summer. A couple of weeks ago the land was tilled by running a chisel through it in preparation for a new crop.
Land is disked two or three or even four times. The work is usually done with GPS-guided equipment.
“All he has to do is push a button. He doesn't even have to put his hand on the steering wheel,” Alameda said, pointing to the driver.
Pre-irrigation for winter crops takes place in August and September. The big lakes of water are meant to leach salinity.
“When you're farming in the desert, it's always salty. The whole goal is to drive the salt down and melt the clods away with water,” he said.
Once the land is pre-irrigated, he lets it dry out for three to four weeks. Then he has it disked again. During this time, workers add fertilizer and spray herbicide, and workers disk it in again.
“We try to keep it nice and level, slow and straight,” he said.
Then workers make the beds by running a mulcher through the land, breaking up any remaining rocks and shaping the beds. For lettuce, the beds need to be higher; for transplanted crops, they must be lower.
Then farmers put in the seeds or planters and hope they will weather the insects, heat and rain storms through September and October.
“It's a fun business. It's so challenging. So many things are out of our control. It makes it interesting,” Alameda said.
One way to battle disease and ward off soil problems is crop rotation.
“It's a good thing. If you always plant the same thing, you'll have problems with weeds and plant diseases,” he explained.
There are two types of rotation: seasonal rotation and complete rotation. Seasonal rotation might involve growing lettuce in the winter and melons in the summer. Complete rotation takes place every two to three years, when a field is left alone to rest.
“It's one of the best protections for disease and prevents soil problems from building up and insects from building up,” Alameda said.
Some grounds are more forgiving. On these, Alameda might plant alfalfa for two to three years. Cotton is also “excellent” for crop rotation.
Although Alameda has survived the busiest time of the year, August through November, when he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, when tractors are going 24 hours a day and people are working through the night, he's not sitting in his office waiting for the winter harvest to end.
He drives all day, from field to field, checking on the progress and making sure everything is running smoothly. It's like juggling hundreds of moving parts at the same time, he said.
Why does he do it? Not only is it a longtime family tradition, but he enjoys the opportunity to work outdoors.
“It's also kind of artistic and creative. You never know if it might rain and we might have to do it all again,” he said, peering at the sky.
And true to his word, it poured that afternoon.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.