Winter vegetable harvest gets early start


Issue Date: November 30, 2016
By Kevin Hecteman
A crew harvests winter cabbage on Jack Vessey’s Imperial County farm. Thanks in part to a warm fall, winter vegetable harvest began early in the desert, with one grower reporting his crop coming in eight to 12 days early.
Photo/Jack Vessey
Martin Rodriguez, a Vessey and Co. supervisor, holds recently harvested organic kale.
Photo/Jack Vessey
The farm also grows cabbage for winter harvest in the Imperial Valley. Winter-vegetable growers report next to no issues with weather or insects as their harvest gets going.

Winter vegetables ran hot and cold as November rolled on, as growers and packers confronted warmer weather and a cooler market.

"I need winter and fall to show up, so the stuff can kind of go to sleep," said Todd Hirasuna of Sunnyside Packing Co. in Selma. "We do some napa cabbage; when it's warm, it doesn't want to wrap real well. … Depending on a couple of other factors, the head of the cabbage won't be as tight as you'd like it. The corn seed maggots will kind of stick around. We need that first frost to get rid of some of these bugs."

Farther south, near Holtville, harvesting got under way early.

"We're just starting romaine right now," said John Hawk, whose family has been in the Imperial Valley for three generations. "It looks like there's plenty of product. It's been a pretty warm fall, and so the product is coming in probably eight to 12 days early."

That horn of plenty came as vegetable harvesting migrated south. As vegetable harvest finishes in Salinas, there can be a market gap while farmers in more southern regions accelerate their production, but Hawk said there's not likely to be a shortage during the transition this year.

"There's lettuce, romaine; other crops are coming in on time," Hawk said. "It's probably not going to be a great market right now. There's plenty of product—too much product."

Ralph Strahm, a third-generation Imperial Valley grower, said he's optimistic about crop yields, and said insect problems have been minimal.

"I think it's going to be a really good harvest," Strahm said. "We haven't had any weather that would cause any problems with the planting, so everything's on schedule. All the crops look excellent."

Strahm said he's also expecting low prices because of too many crops on the market—specifically lettuce, cauliflower and cabbage.

"That remains to be seen, because we might have a cold winter, and then it'll slow the growing just before harvesting," he said.

Meanwhile, a warmer winter back east might help California growers.

"If we get a cold winter here and it slows the growing, and they have a warm winter in the rest of the country—especially the population areas on the Eastern Seaboard—then their demand will be high, because they'll feel like eating salads for Christmas and New Year's," Strahm said. "But if it's really, really cold, they won't want salads. They'll want soup, and they won't buy a lot of winter vegetables from us."

Markets were slow before Thanksgiving, growers said.

"Prices are OK but business is pretty quiet," Hirasuna said. "You can have prices be really high, but if there's not a whole lot of demand and business is slow, it really doesn't matter how high the price is. The last three to four weeks, it's been pretty bleak as far as demand goes."

Strahm identified the main challenge facing his farm: the strength of the dollar. In the immediate aftermath of President-elect Donald Trump's election, for example, the Mexican peso lost value against the dollar.

"As their peso gets cheaper, then it tends to cause more of their products to come into the United States," Strahm said, "and since we're competing with Mexico on the same market, the strength of the dollar is a big problem."

So is the cost to employ harvest help, as farmers have reported elsewhere.

"The state of California has the highest labor (costs) in the areas that we compete with," Strahm said, "so we're at an automatic disadvantage right from the start."

Those costs will contine to rise due to California laws concerning minimum wage and agricultural overtime pay.

"We are probably going to phase out crops that have to be hand-harvested if we aren't going to get any mechanical harvesting to make us more competitive," Strahm said. "We've already seen the asparagus industry move out of this area. We have excellent asparagus-growing conditions, but there's virtually none left here."

Broccoli has also left the valley, he said: "A lot of these crops are just being shifted to Mexico."

Hawk described labor costs as "probably the big issue," especially in competing with Mexican farms.

"We're paying $10 to $12 an hour, and they're making $10 to $12 a day (in Mexico)," he said.

Increased mechanization is a possibility, Strahm said.

"We're already seeing a very innovative kind of thinning machine that's being used by some farmers here," he said, noting that the machine can replace a crew of 20.

Hawk said he's doing mechanical thinning with his lettuce and romaine, and looking into mechanically harvesting onions, as he's already doing with his carrots.

"It's going to push us into mechanization much quicker than we probably would have, with all the overtime and the minimum wage and all that," he said. (See related story.)

In the Imperial Valley, Strahm and Hawk both draw on water supplies from the Colorado River and have adequate supplies. Farther north, however, it's a different story.

"The Central Valley used to be a lot bigger deal than what it is now with the water situation on the Westside," Hirasuna said. "It's probably more the exception than the norm anymore."

Hirasuna said a handful of vegetable growers continue to use Fresno County farmland as a transitional production region from the coastal regions to the desert.

Challenges aside, Strahm said he sees no reason the Imperial Valley can't continue to supply produce.

"We have an abundant supply of water here; we have lots of sunshine and lots of farmable land," Strahm said. "There's no reason for agriculture not to stay healthy here. It's just we're going to have to change cropping."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.