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Huron may be losing cache for winter deal

by Brian Gaylord | November 10, 2010
The number of growers transitioning from California's Salinas Valley for a three- to five-week Iceberg lettuce deal in Huron, CA, appears to be dwindling.

By the second week of November, the Iceberg lettuce harvest in the Salinas Valley typically has begun winding down. For many growers, both the Salinas Valley and Huron lead to a transition to desert harvests in areas such as the Imperial and Coachella valleys in California, and Yuma, AZ. There are, of course, growers headquartered in hot, arid locations that do all their growing close to home, such as Richard Bagdasarian Inc. and its vegetable marketing arm, Pasha Marketing. Bagdasarian and Pasha do all their farming in California’s Coachella Valley.

"We’ve chosen to stay here and concentrate on Mecca [CA]," Franz DeKlotz, vice president of marketing for Bagdasarian and point person for Pasha, said. “We know it inside and out.”

Some companies such as Salinas, CA-based Steinbeck Country Produce and Salinas-based Ippolito International LP typically bypass Huron and transition from Salinas directly to Yuma.

In 2009, fall crops in both Huron and the Salinas Valley faced diseases that affected yields. White fly infestations in Huron contributed to a sub-par harvest for some companies compared with previous years.

The 2008 fall harvest in Huron may have signaled the start of curtailment in companies transitioning to Huron or at least cutting back the duration of their Huron deal. But cutting back in Huron from say five weeks to three weeks begs the question of viability: Is it worth the effort for a three-week stint?

Huron lies in the San Joaquin Valley’s west-side region, where water supplies have been tight for several years. Tree fruit, grapes and almonds take priority for the limited water supplies.

Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting for Castroville, CA-based Ocean Mist Farms, told The Produce News in early November that the company “sees less grower-shippers” in Huron.

Ocean Mist’s fall Iceberg lettuce harvest in Huron, CA, started Nov. 1 and will run until about Nov. 23. Its Iceberg lettuce harvest in Yuma starts around Nov. 20 for a three-week run. The company will start all winter crops in the Coachella Valley around Nov. 22.

Ocean Mist wrapped up much of its winter harvest in the Salinas Valley during the week of Nov. 1. “Huron used to be four or five weeks [in the fall],” Mr. Barrientos said. “More and more growers don’t go or go for only three weeks.” Weather issues anywhere are unknown well in advance, but water issues in Huron are more understood in advance. “Availability of water in the San Joaquin Valley is at the mercy of the snowpack in the Sierras,” Mr. Barrientos said. If snowpack levels are below average, the state allocates water to growers.

Grower-shippers commit to a certain amount of volume and need to know well in advance what their growing options are. So growers in the San Joaquin Valley are getting good at advising in advance whether they will have water for Iceberg lettuce, Mr. Barrientos said.

Staying longer in the Salinas Valley and transitioning to Huron are both gambles. The Salinas Valley can experience early winter rains and cold temperatures that negatively affect crops. Some companies transition from the Salinas Valley to Yuma early, but that also has its challenges.

This year, the Salinas Valley has experienced topsy-turvy weather conditions, with extremes of unseasonably cold temperatures mixed with heat waves and rain.

Jim Bogart, president of the Salinas, CA-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, told The Produce News Nov. 3 that the fall Huron deal has become “shorter and shorter” in duration.