Cooler weather slows vegetable crops’ progress


Issue Date: March 13, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

Cooler-than-average winter weather in the Imperial Valley has altered harvest schedules for the region's vegetable growers.

"The lettuce is smaller," Holtville grower John Hawk said. "It takes longer to grow. Our onions are behind—maybe 10 days to two weeks behind, as far as bulbing."

Hawk grows iceberg lettuce, romaine, onions, organic carrots and organic onions.

"Last year, we had maybe just a few days—two or three days—of 'lettuce ice,' which gets down to 32 to 35 degrees in the mornings,"Hawk said. "This year, we've had 20-plus days of lettuce ice."

Lettuce ice—which Hawk defines as "a general term that means it's cold"—means crews have to postpone work.

"In the winter, when you would start harvesting at, say, 6:30 in the morning, with lettuce ice you are delayed two or three hours if you have ice on the lettuce," he said.

Hawk pointed out that on such days, the ground will be two to three degrees cooler than the air temperature.

"You cannot cut lettuce when there's ice in it," he said. "It'll discolor. You have to wait till the ice is out."

With less lettuce in the field ready to harvest, the cold can lead to four or five harvest days per week instead of six, Hawk said, and workdays of four to six hours.

"You have shorter days because the stuff isn't growing like it should, and so there's days where you may not cut on Saturdays," he said.

The markets, Hawk said, have reflected the colder weather.

Iceberg lettuce from the Imperial and Coachella valleys was selling for $18.95 to $22.95 per 24-count carton as of March 8, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In late February 2018, the same carton sold for $8.85-$12.25.

Romaine lettuce, by contrast, was fetching $14.95-$18.95 per 24-count carton on March 8, according to AMS, versus $9.95-$14.55 in February 2018.

Hawk said he's usually finished by March 15, but this year he anticipates harvesting romaine into April.

Vegetable farmer Alex Jack of Brawley said the market has been "not as bad of a roller-coaster ride" as in past years.

"The highs were really high, and the lows were not real lows," Jack said. "We were always able to get some money back even on the low times."

His ranch, he added, will have "a very good year," though he noted most of his crops are running late, with one exception.

"My cauliflower volume during these good markets has been almost normal," Jack said. "We have not been behind schedule. But on my iceberg lettuce, we've been about a week behind schedule."

Why is cauliflower running on time?

"I can't tell you why," Jack said. "I wish I had the magic potion on how we did it, so I can do it again. We've had a really good run on cauliflower."

Jack said he anticipates being done with all but cauliflower by St. Patrick's Day, with cauliflower wrapping up another week or so after that.

"My yields have been really good this year on all crops," he said. "The lettuce is a little banged up right now from the frost. But once we peel it down a little bit, everything's fine. We're getting decent weights."

Jack said the biggest difference this winter has been in the high temperatures.

"We've had a lot of days in the 50s, where in the past, we would only have three or four days in the 50s," he said. "I haven't heard an official count, but it just seems like watching the weather every day, we're in the 50s a lot, or low 60s. The last five years, a lot of our temperatures are 65 to 73."

Jack said demand for iceberg lettuce has improved, in part because of recalls of romaine earlier in the season.

"If your program had iceberg lettuce in it, then I think you're having a good winter," he said. "If you did not have iceberg lettuce as part of your program, then it's going to be probably a little bit of a struggle to break even."

Hawk said rains have not been a major issue.

"Rain has not been that bad," he said. "It makes it a little messy in the fields, but when there's good demand, the shippers will find a way to get it cut."

He said he's been pleased with the markets so far.

"The last two years have been pretty brutal in the vegetable industry," Hawk said. "This year is kind of a bright spot. It's a pickup for sure. We're pretty happy with that."

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

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