Warm autumn accelerates desert vegetable harvest
By Kate Campbell
A warmer-than-usual start for Imperial Valley winter vegetable crops concerns farmers, who say crops are maturing faster than expected and possibly sooner than the market can absorb.
"We got unseasonably hot weather in September and October, much higher than we're used to," said vegetable farmer J.P. La Brucherie, who is president of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.
The run of triple-digit temperatures into the fall was preceded by punishing flash floods in July and August. The Imperial County agricultural commissioner's office estimated damage to crops at nearly $20 million. Damage to water conveyance and irrigation infrastructure also totaled in the millions of dollars.
Imperial Valley farmers produce nearly $1 billion worth of fresh vegetables—broccoli, carrots, lettuce, melons and onions—on about 100,000 acres each year, with fall plantings comprising the bulk of the nation's winter vegetable supply.
"We had some struggles getting this year's winter crops going, but overall it should be a good season," La Brucherie said.
The price outlook for growers remains uncertain. Spring, summer and fall grower prices were generally down.
"I wish I knew where prices are headed . . . I really do," said Imperial Valley vegetable grower Jack Vessey, who chuckled at the thought of trying to predict. "We never know for sure where prices are headed."
Vessey also expressed concern about the effect of unusually warm temperatures. He said the "front-end crops"—those with short growing cycles, such as spinach and spring mix—are already being harvested in the Imperial Valley. In Arizona, early iceberg and romaine lettuce are being shipped to U.S. markets.
Imperial Valley farmers say they worry that crops maturing too quickly could translate into too much fresh produce in the market, further depressing vegetable prices.
During the first eight months of 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said consumer prices for fresh vegetables were down for almost all commodities when compared to the same period last year.
Taking a composite of all winter vegetable plantings, Imperial Valley farmer Larry Cox said plantings are down overall.
"Whether it's 5 percent or 10 percent, I don't know, but it's down," Cox said. "Last year was such a brutal year for prices that there needed to be some reduction in planting. We oversupplied the winter market last year and don't want to do it again."
Cox, who is first vice president of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said the past 16 months have seen very depressed vegetable prices. Markets began creeping higher in September and October due to drought and weather conditions on the East Coast.
"With Hurricane Sandy, however, the markets are depressed again," Cox said. "We'll probably see a slug of orders to get the shelves restocked, but the question is how quickly people in the damaged areas get out to the stores and restaurants. People are going to have a lot of things to spend their money on besides eating out."
In a new report, the Denver-based cooperative lender CoBank said studies indicated a continued focus on differentiated, value-added fresh vegetable products will help to capture a higher market share. In addition, organic produce continues to show price resiliency, CoBank researchers said. During 2012, they found sales of organic vegetables grew by nearly 15 percent.
Recent surveys also found that consumers exhibit a strong preference for locally grown produce in the Midwest that is eclipsing their preference for organic in some locations, which may bode well for domestically grown fresh produce versus imported.
"We've been scaling back plantings since 2008," Cox said. "It's expensive to grow and harvest smaller crops so we've cut back on growing small blocks of crops like bok choy and cabbage."
He expressed optimism about one new product, called Little Gem.
"It's popular in Germany, Switzerland and France, a cross between butter lettuce and romaine. It's really sweet and looks like a small romaine head," Cox said.
Labor issues continue to dog vegetable growers, experts say. A decrease in immigrants from Mexico has caused a drop in the number of migratory workers. Growers who are hard-pressed to recruit an adequate number of employees during peak harvest times face increased labor costs or pressure to mechanize harvests of crops they would prefer to pick by hand.
"We're chronically short-handed," Cox said. "We very seldom have more people than we need. People who went to work in construction or food service returned to agriculture after the downturn in the economy. But, with an improvement in the economy, our labor supply could change on short notice."
Cox described himself as "guardedly optimistic this year's winter crop will find good markets and return us to profitability," adding, "but we have many areas of concern."
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.