Water is scarce, but lettuce remains in Huron

02/06/2009 12:00:00 AM
Dawn Withers

(Feb. 6, 2:53 p.m.) Despite California’s continuing drought, Salinas Valley grower-shippers do not expect supply gaps in the spring lettuce crop from Huron.

Fresno-based Westlands Water District (the state’s largest), which serves Huron, expects no water this year from the federal government because of a combination of low rain falls and federal endangered species law, said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district, though no official allotment decisions have yet been made.

“It just seems impossible this can actually be the case,” Woolf said Jan. 30.

Woolf said this will affect growers in Huron where most major Salinas growers and shippers transition their fall and spring lettuce crops between Salinas and Yuma, Ariz., to maintain supplies of leafy greens for fresh-cut processors, retailers and foodservice companies.

It’s the first time the district will not receive an allotment, Woolf said, after seeing its water supply severely restricted in 2008.

With spring lettuce crops already planted, Salinas-area companies said they have enough water to cover their crops in Huron during the three to four week spring transition in March and a similar transition in November, though they expect to pay more for less water.

“We’re pretty sure we’ll have the lettuce we want this year in Huron, but beyond that, we don’t know,” said Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer at Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif.

Steve Church, sales manager and principal of Church Bros. LLC, Salinas, said the company hasn’t reduced acres or changed the varieties of its Huron crop but said future cut backs aren’t out of the picture, especially with the cost of water.

“It will be more expensive because of the water,” Church said.

John D’Arrigo, president of D’Arrigo Bros. of California, Salinas, said this year will be the first time the company doesn’t plant lettuce in Huron during the spring or fall. The company has phased out its Huron crop over the past several years, he said, because the rising cost of water.

“This the first year we’re not going to be in Huron for 40 years,” D’Arrigo said.

Avoiding Huron, D’Arrigo said, means planting and harvesting lettuce for longer in Yuma and Salinas and hoping the weather doesn’t ruin lingering crops. If it does that could create supply gaps in lettuce, he said.

Drought conditions in California last year are estimated to have cost the state $308 million in agricultural production, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. $98 million of that was lost in vegetable, melon and nursery plants.

Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Association, Sacramento, said shortfalls in lettuce supply is not the kind of issue the association focuses on in their lobbying efforts.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a concern, but to what degree I’m sure it’s too early to tell,” Heylen said.

The Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office is reporting only 5,800 acres of lettuce will be planted in the county, down from 7,400 acres last year.

Thomas Nyberg, deputy agricultural commissioner, said the drought means growers who have permanent crops such as almonds or other tree nuts or fruit will be faced with using the little water they do have on preserving perennials over the seasonal lettuce they grow for other companies.

“It’s never been this low that I’m aware of,” Nyberg said.



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