Growers ponder cropping plans for next year
As consumers hold off on tossing bagged fresh produce into grocery carts, California farmers are considering their next steps. Experts say it could be several months before fallout from the E. coli spinach outbreak settles in the Salinas Valley and the state's other salad growing regions.
Meanwhile, Mexico's health department has re-opened its doors to lettuce imports from the United States. And U.S. restaurants are including spinach on the menu.
"We are pleased that Mexico has decided to reopen its market to California lettuce. Unfortunately, this cannot undo the economic damage to Monterey County agriculture," said Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Bob Perkins. "There was never any basis in fact for any international trading partner to interrupt the movement of lettuce from California. There was no evidence that lettuce shipped from California to Mexico was or is unsafe."
California produces about two-thirds of the nation's vegetables, which in Monterey County alone was worth more than $2.2 billion. The California Department of Food and Agriculture lists the value of the state's 2005 spinach crop at $258.3 million.
Of the spinach grown in California, 73 percent comes from Monterey County. Other spinach-growing counties include Imperial, San Benito, Riverside and Ventura. Spinach acreage has more than doubled in the past five years.
Steve Koike, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor who works extensively with lettuce and spinach growers in the Salinas Valley, said, "Spinach has become a very important crop for us. Fifteen years ago it was around, but nowhere near the importance it has today."
Part of that importance is based on the crop's fast-growing nature, he said. Under optimum condition in the middle of summer, spinach can be harvested in the Salinas Valley in as little as three to four weeks.
"We have a very dynamic and complex cropping schedule in this valley," Koike said. "We grow 25 to 30 different kinds of vegetables here. Some, like celery, are annual and can take 100 days to harvest. Lettuce is done in 55 to 65 days. Crops are going in and out all the time. Spinach fits very nicely and can be put into any vacant growing slots."
By rotating crops farmers are able to reduce disease pressure, Koike said. Spinach is a good partner because it's in a different plant group, it grows quickly and it keeps the land productive while controlling the amount of lettuce that moves to market.
Spinach season is wrapping up in San Benito County, said Richard Silva, vice president of San Benito County Farm Bureau. His growing activities now shifts to Yuma, Ariz. and the Imperial Valley.
"When the E. coli outbreak first occurred in mid-September we were immediately shut down," Silva said. "It was a good precautionary measure, although there was nothing wrong with that spinach."
Silva said the last part of the Central Coast spinach crop went to freezers for the frozen food market.
"Unfortunately, when the outbreak occurred, the freezer market became the only outlet for our crop and we can only recoup about 20 percent of our growing costs through those sales," he said. "The problem now is consumer confidence. There has been a general malaise in people's buying habits when it comes to fresh produce."
Silva said right now plans for how much spinach and lettuce to plant for the next growing season are a guess.
"It's a difficult thing to predict," he said. "If consumer confidence comes back quite strongly, we'll be underplanted next year. If it continues to wane, we may produce more than the consumer will be requesting."
Kathy Means, Produce Marketing Association vice president for legislative affairs, said, "We took a major hit when the Food and Drug Administration issued the advisory for consumers not to eat spinach, but we also took a hit on bagged salads as well.
"We haven't quantified all the losses yet, but loss estimates for the two weeks the FDA spinach advisory was in effect are between $25 million to $50 million at the grower-processor level alone. That does not include losses at of retail and food service sales.
"We're still feeling the impacts," she said. "Some folks have chosen not to carry spinach yet and those that have restocked are not selling the kind of volume they saw before the crisis hit."
At its annual meeting in San Diego on Oct. 20, the PMA board authorized $1 million in new funds to be allocated over the next 14 months to a four-pronged program designed to reinforce existing and determine new industry standards for food safety that extend from field to fork.
The plan will be coordinated with key industry association partners to avoid duplication and ensure a timely response, said PMA President Bryan Silbermann.
The multi-faceted program will include a research agenda to enhance growing and processing practices, enhanced education and training for all parts of the supply chain, and a verification component to help industry members evaluate their adherence to benchmark practices. In addition, the plan calls for a consumer communications campaign aimed at rebuilding confidence in produce.
As the growing season wraps up in the Salinas Valley and moves to Huron in the San Joaquin Valley, later the Imperial Valley and Yuma, Ariz., Means said not only is it difficult to plan winter vegetable crops in California, the crisis also has had a major impact on spinach and lettuce farmers in other states, as well. These crops are grown in Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado and Maryland
"A whole lot of U.S. production area was being prepared to start a new growing season," Means said. "As people are moving into planting decisions it's a difficult time. Consumer confidence took a big hit and it's going to take a long time to rebuild it. This is not the sort of thing that can be fixed with a clever slogan and some nutrition information."
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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