Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott Nov. 22, 2015 publication
Growing produce is not a job, it’s an adventure! No two years are alike. I have noticed that lettuce harvest has started weeks earlier than I’ve been accustomed to. After checking it out, I also discovered growers had planted earlier this year. The loss of produce acres in central California due to drought has disrupted the nations’ supply of lettuce. Packers usually move from Yuma in April to Salinas, then Huron then back to Yuma in late November. Not this year, as weather and growing problems in California reduced their lettuce supplies.
I often hear the comment that people do not know what is growing in the fields. There are some clues that can at least assist in making better guesses! Please, do not enter the fields to ‘check it out’. When it comes to the major crops, broccoli, cauliflower, head lettuce and romaine lettuce you look at the number of plant lines on the row, the width of the rows and the color of the plants. It is not coincidence that all of these crops are grown on north-south rows. Growers want the heads to develop evenly and to do that, the crop needs equal sunlight on both sides. Produce plants all do not mature at the same time, making it necessary to make more than one harvest pass through the field. Plant breeders are getting closer to getting the plants more in sync, so that multiple harvests are not needed and that the crop may be mechanically harvested. Many of these decisions are made based on the available labor force to do the work, as we do now.
When looking at the produce in the row, are there 1, 2 or 3 lines of plants on the bed. Cauliflower, which is produces a big plant is normally planted one row to the bed and has blue-green-grayish leaves. The cauliflower develops in the center of the plant, under the wrapper leaves. While cauliflower used to only be white, it now comes in orange, purple and other colors. Most people eat with their eyes and the brightly colored cauliflower are beautiful in salads.
Broccoli is grown two rows to the bed. The plants do not have the large leaves like cauliflower and are a brighter green color. Broccoli can be harvested several times as the plant produces the central crown as will as multiple side crowns on the stem. As with all produce, the demand and price determine how a crop is harvested.
Romaine lettuce is grown on a wider bed, with 3 or 5 lines of plants. There are also some traditional 2 plants per bed fields as well. With romaine, it depends on the use of the crop. If harvesting romaine hearts, it depends on how large a heart is needed. The size is determined by the packer and store or restaurant using the product. Normally, the harvester cuts the plant, then trims off the outer leaves until the remaining plant is the proper size. To reduce waste, growers increased the number of plants on the bed, forcing narrower romaine. Since the hearts are placed in plastic bags by workers on the harvest aid, purified water is put in the bag so the romaine does not get friction burns as it is packed. The goal of all growers, packers and shippers is to have the most perfect product for the consumer.
Food safety is paramount. Yuma growers instituted food safety practices in 2007 and developed training programs that are being adopted on a nation-wide basis. The Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association and the Yuma Safe Produce Council work tirelessly to maintain their record of safe produce from field to table. You can help by keeping dogs away from fields and on a leash; exercising horses and 4-H/FFA animals away from fields; not littering; never entering agricultural fields and not dumping objects or dispose of unwanted substances in canals or ditches.