Bobbi McDermott September 27, 2015
There is nothing like Yuma weather, it has no rhyme or reason! The heavy rains of early September and the humidity with showers late in the month have created many challenges for the local produce growers. From the end of the previous season in March or April each year, vegetable companies are busy plotting and planning with their buyers on how much of each type of lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli and the multitude of other crops grown are needed. In addition to how much, the planting schedule covers what crop is planted where within Yuma County. Growers look at the microclimates to determine which specific variety will do the best in Yuma Valley, Gila Valley, Dome Valley, Wellton, Roll and Texas Hill.
Just when everything in the tillage, planting, sprinkler pipe and seed deliveries were underway, the heavy rain struck the Somerton area. Due to the soil types and the amount of rain in the area, all the careful plotting and planning was turned upside down for growers in the area. The day after the storm, there was a constant stream of equipment moving east to fields that were going to be planted later in the season, but were needed now because they were dry. There will be long days for the managers refiguring where their product for harvest in November will be planted. Seed crops such as onions are also affected because there must be a buffer of 2 to 3 miles between the various types on onion seed being produced. If growing red onions for seed, they need to be at least 3 miles from the white onion fields or you risk getting pink onion seed, if the bees happen to cross pollinate the crops. A map is kept by the Cooperative Extension Service to help growers locate areas where their seed crops are isolated. With some fields not available until later in the season, seed crops could be adversely affected. All farmers will tell you that the weather is always the greatest unknown in production agriculture. The local growers are just like the Marine Corps, they will adapt, improvise and overcome to successfully produce winter vegetables for the country.
In the preplanning for the produce season, food safety is on the minds of the local growers. ‘Train the trainer sessions’ are being held to prepare each company to train all their employees. Those not involved in vegetable production do not understand the depth of the responsibility grower and harvesters have to keep their product safe.
Food safety is the cost of doing business for companies, required by customers and consumers. The rules for you as a lettuce harvester include no smoking, eating, drinking, chewing gum, snacking or spitting in the fields. You are to come to work having showered and wearing clean clothes. No jewelry of any kind, personal adornment items, watches or make-up is allowed. As a field worker, you will wash your hands many times a day. First when you start the day before you put on your gloves, then every time you take a break, use the restroom, eat your lunch, or move from field to field. Gloves are not considered enough protection so hands must be clean when you put them on.
Harvest tools are also sanitized regularly. Knives cannot have chipped blades, cracked handles or tape on handles. Bins, baskets, tables, mechanical harvesters, brushes and buckets must be sanitized and cleaned daily. All harvesting tools stay with the company with no tools brought from the outside.
The chain of cleanliness continues to the boxes made in the field, containers for bulk products, container liners, pallets and the harvest aids. Equipment can have no loose or damaged parts, be free of dirt, diesel, oil and grease.
The agricultural workers in the Yuma fields are skilled workers with tremendous pride in the work they do. Almost every year, the uninformed reporter or newscaster suggests that crop harvest could be done by the unemployed or incarcerated. The last person you want handling the food your family will eat is someone who doesn’t care. Our local agricultural workers are key to the success of the Yuma produce industry and should be celebrated as such.
Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott is a soil and water conservationist. She can be reached at email@example.com.