Yuma is the closest city to Imperial Dam LTVA, so it’s where we drive to for groceries, the laundromat, and one microbrewery with outside seating (our treat after errands). It’s so important to folks here at the LTVA that we all go on Yuma time instead of California time (where we actually live).
Maybe you know this, but I didn’t until I looked out the window as we drove through the county: Yuma grows America’s veggies in the winter. Like, all our veggies. Seriously: 90% of all leafy ones are grow here from November through March.
Mostly it’s lettuce—as we drive through I see small heads of baby greens and large heads of dark green and red. According to a Yuma tourist website, nine salad plants are grown here for bagged lettuce and salad mixes, and during peak production months, processing plants go through two-million pounds of lettuce every day.
We also see lemons, melons, and dates (see below on those). We haven’t seen but hear they’re grown: cotton, alfalfa, grains, and wheat. Apparently, 71% of Yuma’s wheat is exported to Italy for pasta.
When you’re driving by, it’s hard to tell what’s being grown, frankly. Cauliflower? Broccoli? Kale? Some crops have been harvested, leaving a mess of greens behind (yeah, I hear you Southerners chuckle). And some have been harvested for an early picking, and you can see about half left to grow for a second harvest. It’s very temping to stop and get out to see exactly what the heck that is.
I never gave much thought to dates (except, yum) until, again, we drove through here for the first time and saw all these date palm farms. They’re striking to see: long rows of palm trees, some with bags high up around clusters of growing dates to protect them.
Again according to a Yuma tourist website, everything related to date growing has to be done by hand, as in the workers have to climb the trees—each tree—something like 17 times. They’re up there doing the “pollination, thinning, separating strands of fruit with metal rings to help the air circulate, and finally, bagging the date bunches.”
I’m guessing dates are also grown in more exotic locations, but Yuma is the world’s largest producer of Medjools. They make a big deal of them here, with stores and stands selling dates and date shakes, for which we’ve seen people in long lines. I am not eager to try one of these shakes, but you know we gotta. I’ll report back. I do have a ziplock full of dates we bought at the farmer’s market, and I can say with confidence: they’re sweet and plump.
Ideal Growing Conditions
So, of course, it’s sun, water, and rich soil that are essential for all these crops in the winter.
The sun is a no-brainer here in the desert. The soil is rich because we’re right on the ancient Colorado River. The water is a bit tricker, though.
I think Yuma gets about three inches of rain a year, so all the irrigation comes from the river. And because this area’s crops have been so crucial to the country for so long, Yuma has “senior” rights to it.
Climate change, of course, is now causing droughts—becoming severe in this region starting in 2011. Three neighboring counties now want some of Yuma’s water rights, and lawsuits have begun. Just like most everywhere, I guess.
Who’s Doing all that Work
As we drive by, we see a lot of John Deere machines working the crops (Tracy’s peeps in Iowa will be pleased to hear that), and a lot of people working the fields. Individual men will have parked their trucks off the side of the road and will be walking the edges, planning, assessing, whatever managers do when they stare out at fields.
But the folks in the fields, bending over to weed or harvesting and placing whatever they’re picking into huge trucks parked nearby, are all seasonal immigrants. According to how many temporary work visas are registered, more than 6,000 men and women from Mexico come to Arizona for farm work.
We see white-painted school buses parked on the side of the road near people in fields. I’m guessing that each morning, the buses are loaded with workers right over the border for efficient crossing, and they unload them right at the crop that needs to be worked that day. Eerily, they remind me of prison buses parked as prisoners do road work.
And you guessed it: these workers live hand-to-mouth, with low wages and no benefits, doing jobs Americans won’t take. It’s thanks to them that we eat anything at all that’s green in the winter.
When we were in Anza Borrego, we learned that Cesar Chavez did a lot of organizing for the National Farm Workers Association in that town, where he and his fellow planners were kicked out of one camping spot and then house after another, until the camphost at a campground we walked through after a hike defended their right to stay.
What was cool to me about this story is that it was presented in a series of plaques in the campground, produced by local high-school English and computer graphics students, with the text in Spanish in front of the text in English. I’m such a gringa: I was thrilled to see this.
The veggie facts I got from VisitYuma.com. The interesting stuff I got from a StoryMap created by Alexander Jauregui–Galarza. StoryMaps are what they sound like: stories about a place created using GIS (geospatial software), specifically ArcGIS by the huge company, Esri. Esri has a StoryMaps contest each year, and they announce and display the winners at their huge conference (which I’ve been to). They put the StoryMaps section in this bright area of the conference building in San Diego with lots of windows and skylights: the star of the conference.
If you’re interested in what can be learned about a place based on its geographic data, check these out on Esri’s website.