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Vegetable production shifts to Western deserts

A couple of good late October storms helped hasten the shift of vegetable production from coastal California to the deserts of Arizona and California, with a stop in the San Joaquin Valley along the way.

The Huron district on the Westside of California’s Central Valley was in full swing in early November just as desert production was getting under way. Traditionally, Huron serves to fill a one-month gap between Salinas and the desert region in southeast California and southwest Arizona. In recent years, largely because of lack of water, some growers have skipped Huron, instead lingering in Salinas a bit longer and starting in Yuma, AZ, or the Imperial Valley a bit earlier. Huron still plays an important role and still is favored by many for that gap, but the transition lines are being blurred a bit.

cal-desert-veg Steve Alameda, president of the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, who farms as Top Flavor Farms for several different shippers, said the desert growing weather during the late summer and early fall period has been ideal, especially for those looking for an early start. The summer heat is the enemy of those trying to plant in August for a late October or early November start date. Speaking specifically of Iceberg lettuce, he said there are a few varieties that can withstand the late summer heat, but most cannot. But this year, he said “the weather has been very nice -- abnormally cool. It wasn’t until last week [the end of October] that we had some days in the 90s that could have caused some problems. But everything looks good. I haven’t confirmed that but I think a couple of fields were cut last week.”

Alameda said at least one shipper was planning to get started on Nov. 4, and by the week of Nov. 7 many more would be in the deal. While the traditional start date for the Yuma vegetable deal has been around Nov. 15, Alameda said fields getting harvested in the Nov. 5-8 range is not unheard of.

While the weather has been great, the Yuma grower agreed that the result might be a double-edged sword. Good weather should bring good yields and good production, which also means a supply-exceeds-demand market. However, he noted that the late October rain in the Salinas Valley could strengthen the market.

Speaking from Holtville, CA, in the middle of the Imperial Valley and about an hour west of Yuma, Jack Vessey of Vessey & Co. Inc. noted the same great weather. “It’s 79 degrees outside right now. It’s beautiful. This morning when I got up it was in the 50s. I had to wear a parka,” he joked.

The veteran vegetable grower-shipper said the great weather has led to same great-looking fields that are all running just a little bit ahead of schedule. He said that the company was already harvesting spinach and spring mix in early November, and the cabbage program would begin at the end of the week. He said Napa cabbage and bok choy harvests would start by the middle of November. Vessey expects the early part of the winter vegetable deal to have fairly good markets and supplies to match. He was hesitant to predict beyond that as weather will surely play a major role.

As far as the product mix is concerned, Vessey said the Imperial Valley appears to have its traditional wide variety of vegetables. One unmistakable trend however, he said, was the significant increase in organic acreage. During the summer, he noted that plastic covering is used almost exclusively to suppress the weeds on acreage that will be used for organic production in the fall. “Driving through the valley this summer, you saw a lot more plastic than ever before. We are following the same trend,” he said about Vessey & Co. “About 20 percent of our production will be organic.”

Back in Yuma, Bruce Gwynn, executive director of YFGA, said the same trend was evident in the Yuma district. “There is a lot more acreage devoted to organics, especially as they [the farms] move further out” away from the city of Yuma.

Gwynn said he doesn’t have an acreage figure on organics but he believes it is the fastest-growing trend in the area. Vessey concurred with regard to the Imperial Valley. And he said there is additional land for growers to farm who are looking to add some organic production.

That is a significant factor as shippers of organic product have said one of the biggest challenges in fulfilling demand for organics is the lack of available land. In fact, at the inaugural Organic Produce Summit, held in Monterey in July, one of the seminars was devoted to the difficulty in finding suitable land to transition to organic production. While that may be true for summer production, it appears not to be a major issue for winter vegetable production in the California and Arizona deserts.

Another trend noticed by both Alameda in Yuma and Vessey in the Imperial Valley is the increased use of mechanization in cultural practices. Both men noted that whether for planting, thinning or harvesting, more operations are using mechanical aids to reduce the amount of labor needed. Both growers also mentioned utilizing more H-2A temporary foreign workers to alleviate the labor shortage.