Growing Pains: Winter Produce Season Underway

2013-10-03 23:42:30
This year’s winter produce season got off to a soggy start with several
days of rain and high humidity that delayed planting in some areas and
washed out tender seedlings in others.
Other crops suffered damage as well, sometimes causing delays in
getting back in to the fields to prepare the ground for vegetables.
“We kicked off the season with tremendous environmental conditions,”
said Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative
But things are back on track with almost perfect growing conditions, he
said. That can be seen around the Yuma Valley, where freshly planted fields lie under a mist of spayed
irrigation water and plants start to poke their heads out of the soil.
“Last year it seemed like it never would cool down,” Nolte observed. “It was still in the 100s.”
Perhaps this year’s slightly cooler fall is a harbinger of a cooler winter, he said. It’s been projected, he added,
but “we don’t know that will happen.”
What vegetable farmers are really hoping for, though, is a nicer winter in other parts of the country where their
customers reside.
“With the economy perhaps recovering, growers are more optimistic about the season,” Nolte said. “If the
weather cooperates, not just in Yuma but around the country so people are able to get out, it might be a good
Yuma-area farmers produce 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.
Plants start going into the ground in August and September, and harvesting kicks off in November about in
time for Thanksgiving. The industry employs around 50,000 workers and keeps a number of coolers and
packing plants humming all winter. The season winds down as the spring brings warmer weather back to the
area in March or April.
The industry has evolved over the years, In 1930, there were 10,000 acres of head lettuce grown here for a
yield of about 250 cartons an acre, Nolte said. Today, there’s almost 70,000 acres of lettuce with a yield of 850
to 900 cartons per acre.
“That’s a direct result of greater efficiencies and new varieties,” Nolte said.
And while head lettuce continues to be a barometer of the produce industry, other crops are catching up as
health-conscious consumers increasingly turn to more nutritious and flavorful vegetables.10/9/13 Print Article: Growing pains: Winter produce season underway 2/2
Almost as much Romaine lettuce is grown today as head lettuce, Nolte said.
And the advent of the packaged salad mix launched the baby spring mix where upwards of 32 varieties of leafy
vegetables are planted in one 84-inch bed. Planting seeds from that many varieties makes it an expensive
proposition, he said. So farmers may nurture the crop all winter to get multiple cuttings.
He estimated the acreage of spring mix vegetables at 25,000 to 30,000 acres today, about half of that spinach.
As for other vegetables, broccoli continues to lead in acreage, trailed by cauliflower and to an ever larger
extent celery, with minute amounts of kale and swiss chard.
“There appears to be a greater interest in kale,” Nolte noted. It’s now being included in some spring mix salads
and is finding its way into a variety of dishes and even kale chips.
“It’s progressed from garnish on salad bars and into a mainstream vegetable,” he said, adding that it is very
As for what might be new this season, Nolte said he’s just starting to see a reddish-colored spinach. “It was
out last season, and we will see more of it.”