Series to trace area's vegetable season
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
- Farmer: Supply, demand decide crops
- 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
This year's winter vegetable season got off to a wet and windy but profitable start, as an increase in demand and decrease in supply drove up the initial prices for the crops.
“It started with strong prices that really initiated harvest in a positive way,” observed Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Extension Service. “It was a great way to start the season.”
And with the prospects of getting good prices, the season got off to an early start about two weeks ahead of the traditional mid-November time frame.
Nolte said initial prices for iceberg lettuce were more than $20 a carton of 24 heads. The price has since moderated to the average level of about $12 a carton.
And the season is full swing, with area farmers producing nearly all the nation's winter supply of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other fresh vegetables. It's a multimillion-dollar industry that stands as a major player in the economy of Yuma County and the state.
The process of getting those crops from fields to consumers is a carefully orchestrated and complex story. It requires advance preparation of the soil, careful tending of the crop in its infancy and an array of goods and services to nurture it along the way until it's ready for harvest. It's then processed and loaded onto trucks that carry it across the country to consumers from one coast to the other and foreign lands.
The 2009 farm census indicates that Yuma County had 531 farms averaging 1,435 acres each. Providing support for them were 411 agriculture-related businesses in Yuma County, according to the Yuma agribusiness profile published in 2008 by the Arizona Department of Commerce.
The vast array of businesses provide the tractors to prepare the soil, seed to go into the ground, chemicals to protect the young crop from pests and diseases and labor to work the fields.
Another critical component is the water to quench the crop's thirst. That water originates in the mountains of Colorado and makes its way to Yuma County through a series of dams and reservoirs along the Colorado River that is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with local delivery systems provided by irrigation districts.
“A lot of components are required,” Nolte said.
Over the next several days, the Yuma Sun will publish a series of articles examining those components and their role in the area's production of winter vegetables that has earned it the title of Winter Lettuce Capital of the World.
The story starts with farmers and their land preparation and crop planning. Next comes the planting, whether tiny lettuce seeds or cauliflower transplants that have been nurtured in greenhouses to young seedlings ready to go into the ground.
Once in the ground, the plants need nurturing from water to protection from a variety of insects, diseases and weeds that can threaten the plant's survival and its ability to produce a crop.
It also takes manpower to work the fields and once the crops are mature, to harvest them. Each season, more than 40,000 workers toil in the fields and packing houses. Many of them cross the border each morning to work, then return home in the evening. The process of crossing the border can involve long waits that add significantly to the length of the day for the workers.
Once harvested, the crops are taken to packing houses where they're cooled and loaded onto trucks for distribution. At the height of the season, thousands of trucks pass through Yuma each day to pick up their loads of vegetables.
To process the vegetables, the major produce companies have invested millions of dollars in the area with the construction of coolers and salad processing plants.
And throughout the entire process, one thing remains constant — the need to ensure that the final product will be safe for consumers to eat.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6853. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/jlobeck or on Twitter at @YSJoyceLobeck.