Growers call desert lettuce crops best in years

11/13/2009 03:00:00 PM
Don Schrack

COACHELLA, Calif. — California’s three-year drought, compounded by court-ordered cuts in water shipments from the north to the south, has limited Huron region’s fall lettuce production.

The outlook for the California desert’s winter lettuce crop is much brighter, however, grower-shippers said.

The lettuce crop in the Coachella and Imperial valleys — provided the good weather continues — will mean ample supplies of high quality lettuce varieties through the winter, they said.

“Our lettuce grower says his yields and his stands of leaf lettuce are the best he’s seen in years,” said John Burton, general manager for Peter Rabbit Farms.

Harvesting of the company’s lettuce varieties — romaine, red leaf, green leaf and butter — should begin the week of Nov. 16, he said.
 
Hearts abound

Romaine hearts, a commodity that took a hiatus of several years at Peter Rabbit Farms, will play a larger role in the company’s inventory this winter, Burton said.

Limited acreage of romaine hearts in 2008 proved to be a hit with customers, he said, and led to increased plantings for this season. 

“We found the demand was there. We found a solid customer base.” Burton said.

The hearts are generally packed in 12 by 3 cartons, but Peter Rabbit will custom pack to retail and foodservice specifications, he said.

The growing popularity of romaine hearts finds several grower-shippers responding.

Hearts are among several leafy green varieties grown in the Thermal area for Fresno-based Baloian Farms, said Jeremy Lane, sales manager.

The other varieties are romaine and red and green leaf and butter lettuce, he said.

“We’ll begin harvesting all of our lettuce varieties right about the end of November,” Lane said. 

 Romaine hearts are part of a variety of leafy vegetables in the winter inventory of Ocean Mist Farms. Others in the category for the Castroville-based grower-shipper include red and green leaf and butter lettuce and romaine, said Gary Silacci, sales manager.

 “Harvesting is scheduled to start about Nov. 19 or Nov. 20, but that could change depending on the weather,” he said. 

 Ocean Mist Farms also will market iceberg over the winter, a crop that Silacci said will be coming from the Yuma area. Picking of all of the company’s lettuce varieties is scheduled to continue through March.

 “We’ll do a transition crop of spring lettuce in Huron before we come back to the Salinas Valley,” he said.

Salinas-based Coastline Produce’s scheduled harvest start for lettuce in the California desert is Dec. 7, said Mark McBride, sales office manager.

“This just may be our best desert deal ever,” he said. “We’ve made the upgrades that should further improve quality and consistency.”

The California harvest will overlap with the company’s Yuma lettuce deal, scheduled to begin Nov. 16, McBride said.

When the desert harvest wraps up next year, Coastline plans to go to Huron in mid-April before returning to Salinas in late April or early May, he said.

Iceberg and romaine on top

The desert-grown lettuce from Salinas-based Diamond Produce LLC is 100% iceberg, said salesman Oscar Miranda.

Planting for the winter crop was increased slightly this season, he said.

The Diamond Produce fall harvest started in Yuma with packing and shipping of the company’s California desert lettuce scheduled to begin in mid-December and to continue through February, Miranda said.

When the California crop winds down, the company will return to Yuma for another two or three weeks of harvesting, he said.

Now entering its sixth winter season, the baby iceberg crop continues to find loyal fans among the foodservice targeted customer base at Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas.

“It didn’t take the industry by storm at the beginning, but baby iceberg has made good inroads with many chefs,” said Michael Boggiatto, president. “It’s been like sand piling up on a beach a grain at a time. Now, we have a small beachhead.”

As a result, Boggiatto planted more acreage in baby iceberg and in romaine for the winter season, he said.

Romaine is the company’s biggest winter crop in the Imperial Valley, but also in the Boggiatto leafy green inventory for the winter are red and green leaf lettuce.

Harvesting of the Boggiatto lettuce crops is scheduled to begin in late November and continue into early April.

“That gives us a little overlap with the Salinas deal,” Boggiatto said.

Planting acreage has been increased for the winter leafy green crops at Holtville-based Imperial Sales, said owner Cliff Smith.

Iceberg and romaine will lead the lettuce category for Imperial Sales, he said.

Weather permitting, harvesting will begin immediately after Thanksgiving, Smith said.

Green Valley Farms Inc. has cut back slightly on its winter leafy green plantings, said Cal Mason, administrator of the company’s Brawley cooling facility, but all of the varieties are still in the fold.

Harvesting and field packing of the company’s iceberg and mixed lettuce varieties will likely begin between Nov. 23 and Nov. 27, Mason said, and will continue into early April.

Due to a reporter’s error. this story originally misnamed Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms’ sales manager Gary Silacci.



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