Saturday, January 21, 2006

Yuma - Winter Lettuce Capital of the World!

And Yuma may not be THE snowbird capital of the world, but it must be among the top 10. It appears that lettuce (and other produce) and snowbirds are the major industries of this Arizona town.

Lettuce Days
I learned a lot about Yuma's produce industry at Lettuce Days. This street fair was typical - vendors selling "stuff" and decorative items that will soon adorn those "planted (im)mobile homes; things for snowbirds' adorable grand- and great-grand children; hats, t-shirts and sweatshirts (sweatshirts sold well because it was quite chilly); less-than-healthy stuff to eat - mini-doughnuts, kettlecorn, hotdogs, pizza, ice cream, and Indian frybread. (No burritos!) The one healthy meal was served up by the Border Patrol Explorers: grilled, skinless chicken breast, along with home-cooked beans and rice, tortilla and salsa. Also in the healthy-food department, the Yuma Food Bank was selling just-picked produce and a high school band was selling bags of oranges.

Besides the street fair vendors, there were several special attractions on Saturday. First was the Kids Lettuce-Box Car Derby. The five entries individually coasted the length of two blocks in a timed competition. (Photos)

The Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing competition apparently wasn't well promoted - there were only three entries. The only requirement was that the recipe had to include at least one packet of the dry salad dressing mix. (see photo of winner). I was one of six judges. The first two entries were quite tasty, looked appetizing, would appeal to all ages, and were relatively simple to make. The third entry flunked ALL categories - it was a spinach soufflé.

I had fun walking through the tractor displays and overhearing conversations by the many retired farmers/snow birds. I learned that the huge tractors have GPS systems to keep the planting rows uniform and straight. Several tractors had tires taller than most of the spectators. (photo)

Saturday also featured the "produce house" - best left to photos to explain. (photos) The second photo was taken from the inside, looking out.

And my favorite was the lo-o-ong salad bar. It was about 150-feet long and for $2 I had every edible green vegetable - all topped with Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. The salad bar was a fund-raiser for a local mission. (photo)

Rodriguez is the major produce-growing corporation in the Yuma Valley, with about 5,000 acres under cultivation. Besides several kinds of lettuce, they grow 30 kinds of other vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, corn, celery, cilantro, kale, radishes, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and scallions. They also plant cotton, alfalfa, wheat and some grasses.

Rodruguez grows produce - marketed under several names - for major supermarket and restaurant chains. In the summer, it takes 2 1/2 months from planting to harvesting lettuce; in the winter it takes 3 1/2 months. There always are at least two lettuce seasons, sometimes three.

Head lettuce is "field packed" into boxes that hold 24 heads; when packed, the box weighs about 50 pounds. Field workers walk behind a piece of machinery cutting the heads that meet size requirements, placing them in a plastic bag that has the name/logo of the buyer. Each field box costs $7 to produce: labor, seed, fertilizer, etc. The price of lettuce - and all produce - fluctuates daily depending on supply and demand.

On any given day, the farm company uses 35,000 field workers. About 90 percent of the laborers are Mexican - some cross the border daily, some live in the Yuma area. I was told that they all have work permits/green cards.

Well, enough about Yuma and Lettuce Days. I had five very fun days. When I was not out and about exploring or chatting with neighbors at Friendly Acres, I read the book: Nothing to Fear; Lessons in Leadership from FDR," by Alan Axelrod. The book distilled Roosevelt's leadership qualities and courage it took to lift America out of the Great Depression and to steer our country through the dark days of WWII. Next in my reading pile is the autobiography of Eugenia Price, one of my favorite authors.

It's time to leave Yuma.


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