FRESNO, Calif. — Winter in southern Arizona attracts thousands of what the locals call snow bunnies, retirees who escape the frigid weather of their spring/summer homes in the North for the state’s warm winter weather.
There are scores of seasonal visitors, too, across the border in California. They are the familiar names of mostly Salinas Valley vegetable grower-shippers who travel south to join their desert-based colleagues to keep retail and foodservice shelves stocked.
Despite some weather problems during plantings and a new pest threat, the vegetable volume should meet last season’s winter production, grower-shippers said.
Ocean Mist Farms, the Castroville-based artichoke giant, will begin harvesting its desert artichokes in mid-December, said Jeff Percy, vice president of desert production.
“Supplies will be light to start, but we’ll have heavy, normal supplies through January and February,” he said. “The quality should be very good.”
The domestic asparagus industry is all but gone from the California desert. Instead grower-shippers have moved across the border into Mexico.
Among them is Brawley-based Five Crowns Marketing.
“We figure to begin shipping asparagus the first week in January,” said Bill Colace, co-owner.
Coastline, Salinas, could begin limited harvesting of Mexican asparagus as early as late December, said Mark McBride, office sales manager.
“It’s an excellent quality deal with excellent sizing and color,” he said. “It’s a real pleasure to sell that deal.”
Bell peppers are the California desert’s winter season opener.
Baloian Farms, Fresno, started harvesting green bell peppers in late October, said Jeremy Lane, sales manager.
“Our early desert bells are complemented by the late-season bell peppers we grow on the central coast,” he said.
Shipping of the Baloian Farms red bell peppers was scheduled to begin in mid-November, Lane said, with both colors expected to be available through the end of the year or until the first frost. The company’s higher elevation desert fields are traditionally among the last to suffer frost damage, he said.
Baloian Farms also is growing mini sweet peppers in the desert. Supplies should be available through the holiday season, Lane said.
Bakersfield-based Sun World International LLC is dumping green bell peppers this season to focus on its red varieties, said Gene Coughlin, category director citrus, watermelon and peppers. Sun World also will grow limited supplies of yellow bells, he said, with acreage overall about the same as last season.
Rain that hit the fields in October could cause a slow harvest start, even though the fields bounced back well, Coughlin said. Harvesting was scheduled to begin Nov. 5.
“We’ll be light in volume until the last week in November,” Coughlin said. “Then wrap up about the end of the year.”
Sizes are big and quality is very good, he said. Sun World packs its No. 1 bell peppers in 15- and 25-pound cartons and offers choice grade in 25-pound cartons.
The company is experimenting with limited acreage of mini sweet peppers, most of which are going to club stores, Coughlin said.
“We’re doing lighter volume now, but looking to ramp up in the next couple of years,” Coughlin said.
Picking of field grown red bell peppers was scheduled to begin by mid-November at Coachella-based Prime Time International LLC, said Mike Aiton, marketing director.
The harvest will ramp up quickly.
“We’re expecting to be running two shifts a day at our Mecca packinghouse by Thanksgiving,” Aiton said.
Prime Time’s red, yellow and green bell peppers are field-grown and hothouse-grown, but the company’s orange peppers are restricted to hothouses. The packing facility, now entering its third season, is helping to meet customer demands, Aiton said.
“We’re seeing more emphasis on bagged peppers, and the new plant can accommodate all customer requests,” he said.
Prime Time packs in one, two and three colors of bell peppers and in two-, three-, four-, six- and eight-count bags.
“The value pack is picking up momentum as shoppers look for a price item,” Aiton said. “And they have great shelf life. We have lots of customers on the East Coast and in Canada.”
Foodservice is a growing segment of Prime Time’s business, he said, in large part because hothouse growing enables the company to ship year round.
Harvesting of red and green bell peppers began the last week in October at Peter Rabbit Farms, Coachella.
“We’ll be in full swing on reds and greens by mid-November,” said John Burton, general manager.
The fall/winter bell pepper deal gets special attention at Prime Time, a 60-year-old family-owned grower-shipper now headed by John and Steve Powell,
“Seed varieties are particularly important in the fall,” Burton said. “The Powells are very particular about what seeds are planted, in what locations, which varieties come off early and which ones are late season varieties.”
As the harvest began, sizes were peaking on extra large to large and were mostly fancy, he said.
Corn is a commodity that is making something of a fall comeback in the desert this year.
“It’s always been a staple in the spring, but we have significant fall planting now,” Aiton said.
Harvesting of Prime Time’s yellow, white and bicolor corn started in late October.
“We’ll have supplies right up to Christmas,” Aiton said.
Corn is playing a bigger role this season at Five Crowns Marketing after the company acquired 50% of Tracy-based Prima Bella Produce Inc. in February. Five Crowns is the marketing arm of the partnership, Colace said. In addition to ears of corn, Five Crowns is marketing Prima Bella’s value-added items, which include the Glori Ann labeled four-pack for retailers and corn coins for foodservice.