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Winter vegetable harvest in desert gains momentum

Issue Date: January 29, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Farmers in the Imperial Valley say their vegetable harvests have picked up pace after being slowed by planting delays and cooler weather earlier in the season.
Photo/Kevin Marty

After a soggy welcome from Mother Nature, Imperial County's winter-vegetable season has gotten off to a solid start.

"We had a lot of rain right around Christmastime, and a little after New Year's—three separate storms," said Steve Hawk, who grows iceberg lettuce, romaine, carrots and onions in his fields near Holtville. "We had one big storm come through before, during planting."

Cold and wet weather, he noted, "makes everything come in a little bit late, not quite on time."

Jack Vessey, whose family has been farming in Imperial County for four generations, said he's running about a week behind schedule.

"The stars align, and you have mildew—heavy, very difficult to control, very costly," Vessey said. "So far, I've got it under control."

In Brawley, Larry Cox said he is nearly midway through harvest of iceberg lettuce, romaine, leaf lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower.

"That's been a bit of a roller coaster as far as both production and markets," Cox said of the delayed planting, mildew and cooler weather.

"It's actually helped result in decreased supplies and increased FOB prices for most of our winter commodities," he said. "If we don't have any adversity, very seldom do we have good markets, so it's kind of a fine line there of having not enough product or too much product."

One of Cox's biggest worries this season: birds. Linnets and horned larks prefer to feed on insects, but when those are hard to find, lettuce becomes an attractive alternative.

"They like to catch it about three days after germination, when it's nice and soft, and they just walk right down that line," Cox said. "They can knock out a hundred seeds in a period of about a few minutes."

He's had to bring in bird patrols to try to encourage the linnets to dine elsewhere.

Last year's late-season E. coli outbreak traced to romaine lettuce from the Salinas Valley continues to reverberate in Imperial Valley fields.

"A lot of people are backing off on their orders," Hawk said. "I've got a lot of romaine that's ready to harvest that hasn't been harvested yet."

The news broke too late for Hawk and other farmers to adjust their plantings. Hawk said his crop is nearing the end of its harvest window, even though he's taken measures to slow the romaine's growth.

"It's best to leave it in the field and then cut it when you need it, instead of cutting it and putting it in the cooler," he said. "You have an option of trimming it down a little bit—trimming off some of the wrapper leaves and whatnot."

Hawk said he's frustrated that no definitive cause of the outbreaks has been found.

"We would love to figure out what it is that's causing it so that we could adjust and adapt to that," he said. "No farmer that I know of wants to get anybody sick. But also, no farmer that I really know of wants to go disk all their fields up when they know they're perfectly fine."

Water is tested before planting, and Hawk has gone to furrow irrigation to help keep water off the plants.

"We test the tissue samples a week, 10 days before we harvest to make sure the product is clear," he said. "And they do hundreds and thousands of tests. I mean, they do 60, 70 tests per 3- or 4-acre block. When you're growing hundreds of acres, you can imagine how many tests they're doing over the season."

Vessey noted demand has increased for other leafy greens.

"The iceberg lettuce market's been really, really good the past few weeks," Vessey said. "Actually, it's been pretty strong the whole deal since we started. That's probably guys switching from romaine lettuce to iceberg on some of these foodservice deals."

Iceberg lettuce from the Imperial and Coachella valleys was selling for $13.85 to $17.95 per carton last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year ago, iceberg cartons sold for $8 to $11.95.

Hawk said his onion crop is looking good, although it's slightly behind schedule because of cold. He's seen low temperatures in the high 30s in his area.

"If you have any dew on the ground, you get lettuce ice," Hawk said. "Not so much on the onions—they have a waxy coating on them, and they usually don't hold a lot of moisture on their leaves, but it does get down to where you get ice on top of the lettuce and romaine."

Mornings warm up quickly, with lettuce ice melting off by 10, he added.

Hawk also grows organic carrots, which should be ready by April or May.

"They look really good," he said. "They're growing well. The cold weather hasn't seemed to slow them down too much. The rain seems to help them."

Average temperatures in the region have been running close to typical levels, from 43 to 65.5 degrees in December and about 41 to 70 degrees in January, said Matthew Hirsch, a forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Phoenix, which handles Imperial County forecasts.

Vessey said he's looking forward to what he called "beautiful Chamber-of-Commerce weather" this week, with no ice, no rain and highs pushing 80.

"Like I always say, growing in the desert is different than many places," Vessey said. "We enjoy rainfall when it's raining somewhere else—especially in Colorado and places to get water in the Colorado River."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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

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