Weather speeds winter vegetable harvest


Issue Date: November 29, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
An employee harvests turnips in a Kern County field. Farmer Jason Giannelli says his turnip harvest will continue until about Christmas, and that warm preharvest weather posed a challenge for the root vegetables he grows, including beets, rutabagas and carrots.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Kern County farmer Jason Giannelli says he was able to produce good crops of turnips and other root vegetables despite pest pressure and the challenges of warm preharvest weather.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

With the 2017 Salinas Valley vegetable harvest about done, eyes now turn to the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys.

In Imperial County, home of California's winter vegetable crop, farmer Alex Jack of Brawley said he's in the midst of harvesting romaine, cauliflower and broccoli.

"Right now, everything looks terrific," Jack said. "Almost everything I see in Imperial Valley—unless the guy got hit by rain early on or something—everything looks really good right now.

"We're running actually ahead of schedule," he added. "We're about 10 days ahead of schedule on our cauliflower, and just a few days ahead of schedule on everything else."

John Hawk, who farms near Holtville, described weather leading up to the harvest as "perfect."

"We've had warm days and cool nights, and the crop is just a banner crop," Hawk said. "What we see in our lettuce and romaine is just—it's beautiful, it's growing fast, it's warmer than normal, and so the crop is coming in probably a week to nine days early."

But recent daytime temperatures in the high 80s, Hawk said, have been "way too warm."

"Everything grows fast, comes in quick," he said, noting that lettuce that normally takes 85-90 days to grow was ready in about 75 days. He normally starts planting around mid-September.

It's not just his leafy greens basking in the sunshine.

"The sugar beets love it," Hawk said. "They're growing like crazy. They've got nice warm temperatures. They're ahead of schedule and look good. We won't harvest those until probably April."

Jack said preseason cooling spells also helped hurry the crop along.

"We had about three spells of cooler weather that came in," Jack said. "The plants just get kind of a reprieve and don't have to struggle so hard, so they can come off a little bit quicker."

All that abundance comes at a price—a lower price.

Hawk said leaf commodities were "coming so fast that it's flooding the market." Some lettuce wasn't even being harvested for lack of buyers, he added.

"There's just way too much product right now," Hawk said.

Jack also said he was seeing soft markets.

"They've had a pretty good run about the last month," Jack said. "Cauliflower's been good for quite a while. But right now, watching the prices, they all seem to be coming down."

A mild winter in the northeastern U.S. would help, Jack and Hawk both said.

"That would be nice, because they'll keep buying," Hawk said. "The minute it freezes up back there, the leaf products kind of stall."

"When it's cold back east, they'll eat more soups and things to keep them warm than they will iceberg lettuce and salads," Jack said.

Weather also affects the ability to ship vegetables, Jack added.

"When it gets really cold in the Midwest and the roads get icy, it's really hard for those trucks to get back to the East Coast," he said. "It takes them, sometimes, three days longer to get from the West Coast to the East Coast just because of the poor road conditions."

Fewer insect problems have helped Imperial Valley farmers.

"It was kind of cool in September," Hawk said, with temperatures running about eight to 10 degrees below average, "so we didn't have a big whitefly influx."

Jack also noticed a lack of whitefly infestation.

"I was just going over my growing costs to date, and my insecticide bills are down about 7 percent over what they were last year," Jack said.

As with most all other California farmers, Imperial Valley growers express concern about the availability of harvest employees, though Jack said he's OK for now.

"As you get further from the border, it gets a little bit more difficult, just because the workers would rather travel less miles and get the same pay," Jack said. "Where my ranch is located, we don't really have a problem. At harvest time, historically, we're always a couple men short on each harvesting rig."

Hawk said that come spring, he expects he may be shorthanded.

"We're always looking at mechanization," especially given labor costs, he said.

In the Salinas Valley, Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said "everyone's characterizing it as an OK year."

"Early in the season, there was abundance of supply on the market, so pricing wasn't that great," Groot said. "A lot of the crops all came in at the same time, so there wasn't a whole lot of profit, so to speak, earlier in the year. And then, towards the end of the season, in the fall months—and unfortunately, this is due to all the natural disasters that happened in Texas and Florida—supply became a little bit tighter, and the prices improved somewhat."

In Bakersfield, a decent crop of turnips is turning up in the harvest bins at Jason Giannelli's farm.

"The quality looks good," Giannelli said. "It was a challenge, with the heat that we had, with all of our vegetables—even with the beets and rutabagas, and even the carrots that we have."

The long, hot valley summer meant no overnight cool-downs until late September, he said, forcing him to be creative with irrigation. Hot water scalds plants, he said, whereas plants with too little water will burn in the hot sun. Insect pressure also played havoc with the crops.

"We saw a big pest population with the earwigs," Giannelli said. "What they do is feed on the leaves, so we had to use proper insecticides to be able to control the earwigs, and also control the flea beetle as well."

Even with all that, he said, "We were still able to get a good stand, get good quality, and we're very fortunate."

Giannelli said he anticipates being done with turnip harvest around Christmas. Rutabaga harvest started Thanksgiving week. He was planting onions, preparing to plant beets and turnips for spring harvest and preparing ground for watermelons and tomatoes.

"We don't stop," he said.

(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.