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Light volumes usher in winter desert vegetables deal

by Brian Gaylord | November 11, 2009
For growers who forego the four- or five-week Iceberg lettuce deal in Huron, CA, and harvest longer in Salinas, CA, the tail end of this season was not a strong one. Then, too, the short harvest in Huron was no picnic, either. Both avenues lead to a transition to desert harvests in areas such as the Imperial and Coachella valleys in California, and Yuma, AZ.

Sales manager-partner Steve Church of Salinas, CA-based Church Bros. LLC told The Produce News Nov. 9 that the company's Iceberg lettuce harvest in Huron was slated to wrap up around Nov. 13.

"It's not a stellar crop," Mr. Church said. "Yields are down." Disease problems and white fly infestations in Huron contributed to the subpar harvest.

Companies that skip Huron and extend their Salinas production faced diseases that affected yields, Mr. Church said. So neither Huron nor the late- season harvest in Salinas was overly productive compared with some years. "Huron [harvest] is better than Salinas," Mr. Church said.

Church Bros. was scheduled to start its harvest in Yuma the week of Nov. 16. "The first fields are spotty," Mr. Church said, adding that he expected "normal supplies" for the season. Lower demand in a weak economy serves as a backdrop to production decisions.

Buying product on the open market "could be extremely interesting" for those who go that route, Mr. Church said.

Church Bros.' Thanksgiving pull was slated to start Nov. 11 in Yuma, where the company's harvest runs to around early March. It harvests leaf lettuce in Salinas until around Thanksgiving.

Church Bros. puts out a biweekly quality report for the benefit of its customers, Mr. Church said.

Butch Corda, general manager at Salinas, CA-based Ippolito International LP, told The Produce News Nov. 9 that the firm bypasses Huron and transitions from Salinas directly to Yuma, where it will harvest items such as Iceberg lettuce, Romaine, Romaine hearts, broccoli and red leaf, green leaf and butter lettuces.

Ippolito also transitions from Salinas to the Imperial Valley for its cauliflower harvest. Mr. Corda said that the company is experiencing "no abnormal problems on the front end" of its Imperial Valley harvest.

It appeared that Ippolito's harvest in Salinas would finish several days early, which would make the company "tight on some items" for a short stretch, Mr. Corda said.

The Thanksgiving pull was slated to start around Nov. 11 in Yuma and for the most part Ippolito "feels good" about that part of its harvest, Mr. Corda said. The company's last day harvesting Iceberg lettuce in Salinas also was slated for Nov. 11.

In late October, the Salinas area had rain followed by warm days, which had some effect on the crops. The Iceberg yield was light "weight-wise" and "carton-wise" in Salinas, Mr. Corda said.

Initial reports point to "good stands and good quality" for Ippolito's winter crop, Mr. Corda said. Overall, Ippolito expects normal crop volumes this winter, he said.

The potential exists for an El Ni?o weather pattern, which can bring "above- normal rain and warm weather," Mr. Corda said.

An El Ni?o weather pattern can mean both more storms and more overall rain, he said. Such a circumstance could cause havoc with the winter harvest, depending on where an El Ni?o weather pattern settles.

On Nov. 9, tight supplies led to Iceberg prices in the $18-20 range and Romaine prices in the $30 range.

Ted Mills, vice president of agricultural operations for Salinas, CA-based River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, told The Produce News Nov. 9 that the company had about three weeks left in its harvest in Huron. In the fall, Huron strictly is an Iceberg lettuce harvest.

River Ranch shoots for four weeks but it often becomes a five-week harvest in Huron, Mr. Mills said. The company harvests Iceberg and Romaine lettuce in Yuma, AZ. In El Centro, CA, in the Imperial Valley, River Ranch grows items such as spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. It focuses on its transition from Huron to the desert during the Thanksgiving week.

Its harvest in El Centro is slated to start around Nov. 29 and run through the second week of March.

Mr. Mills recently toured River Ranch's fields in El Centro and Yuma and said that the crops "look beautiful." River Ranch has increased overall acreage a bit in both El Centro and in Yuma.

River Ranch has regained focus on its agricultural operations with an emphasis on "quality growers," Mr. Mills said.

"Our customers expect we're going to have crop," Mr. Mills said, adding that the company's transition to the desert was shaping up to be on time.

River Ranch contracts with a meteorologist for timely weather information. "We've all got our eye on [the threat of] El Ni?o," Mr. Mills said, adding that growers could try to stay away from the bottom land most susceptible to flooding, but beyond a certain point there's only so much a grower can do.

Lompoc, CA-based Santa Barbara Farms LLC expects its winter crop volumes to be on a par with last year. Castroville, CA-based Ocean Mist Farms expects steady volume on its desert Iceberg lettuce harvest but has slight increases in acreage in spinach and Romaine hearts in the Coachella Valley. Pasha Marketing, the vegetable marketing arm for Mecca, CA-based Richard Bagdasarian Inc. expects volumes on its vegetable items to be on a par with last year.

(For more on winter desert vegetables, see the Nov. 16, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)