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New Leafy Greens Research Program evolves from CLRB

Increasing acreage of spinach and spring mix crops has led to the new California Leafy Greens Research Program (CLGRP), which adds those crops to the production, processing, and distribution research formerly funded by the now discontinued California Lettuce Research Board (CLRB).

The change went into effect April 1 following approval in a California Department of Food and Agriculture referendum during February and March among the 96 California handlers of lettuce, spinach, and spring mix, the immature leaves of various lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, and arugala.

The CLGRP is distinct from the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which governs guidelines for good agricultural practice for the industry.

Mary Zischke, who is chief operating officer of the CLGRP based in Salinas and had been CEO of the CLRB since January of 2006, said the vote was strongly in favor of the new program.

Among lettuce handlers, 90 percent voted yes, while spinach handlers voted nearly 91 percent in favor and more than 87 percent of spring mix handlers approved. By crop volume, the approval was 97.2 percent, 88.9 percent, and 63.7 percent, respectively.

The new panel is composed of 15 board members and 15 alternates, serving three-year terms initially and two-year terms afterward, from three districts: Blythe-Imperial Valley, Oxnard-Santa Maria, and Salinas-Watsonville-San Joaquin Valley.

Many former CLRB directors have returned to represent their districts, although a few new ones represent the spinach/spring mix industries. Troy Boutonnet, vice president of production for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville and former CLRB chairman, continues as chairman.

The board has a new budget of $762,000, including research funds of $337,600 for iceberg lettuce, $299,400 for leaf lettuce, and $75,000 for the spinach/spring mix segment. The assessment is $0.006 per carton equivalent for field packed lettuce and spinach. Spinach and spring mix for processing are assessed at $0.03 per hundredweight delivered to processors.

The board has established a research committee, which is determining priorities for projects, mostly in plant breeding, food safety, and disease and pest management.

Zischke said the new program is in response to increasing popularity and acreage of spinach and spring mix and changes in lettuce acreage. Research priorities will reflect these changes accordingly. Recent spinach production research projects by the CLRB have been funded by voluntary contributions from the spinach handler segment.

“Discussions with CDFA's marketing branch about adding spinach and spring mix started a couple of years ago,” she explained. “There's been a need for research in those crops, but the referendum process took more than a year.”

A public hearing on the proposal, held by CDFA in Salinas to collect comments from the industry and other interested parties on Nov. 15, 2007, resulted in the referendum.

Zischke said benefits of the research will overlap. For example, Verticillium wilt in lettuce has been a research priority for several years, particularly in the search for germplasm for resistant varieties, but the disease is also a significant threat to spinach, which has increasing acreage and is rotated with lettuce. Many growers produce both.

Recent discoveries that Verticillium wilt is carried on spinach seed have made the lettuce industry concerned with the potential of greater incidence of the disease in lettuce. Seed treatments may be the key to management of it on spinach.

DNA tests by University of California plant pathologists have identified 80 percent of the strains of the wilt found on spinach as Race II, for which no lettuce plant resistance has been found.

“That's why the new board may be supporting research on seed treatments for spinach as a benefit for the lettuce industry too,” she said.

Establishment of the new board was welcomed by Director Jim Manassero, advisor to the vice president for D'Arrigo Brothers in Salinas and a veteran of 30 years in the lettuce industry, most of that time serving as a CLRB director.

In addition to the benefits of combining resources to deal with Verticillium wilt specifically, Manassero said, research on spinach breeding and other disease identification, which has been done out-of-state, is now expected to be brought to California during the next year or two.

The new board will meet in October in Seaside for mid-year research progress reports. A new Web site and e-mail address will be announced soon.

The CLRB was established in 1973 as the Iceberg Lettuce Advisory Board with goals to reduce unit cost, improve efficiency of operations, provide the consumer with a better product, and keep California growers competitive. The name of the board was changed in 1998 when research on romaine and other leaf lettuces was added to the board's mission.

For the past several years about 55 percent to 60 percent of its research funds went for plant breeding and related activities, while 40 percent to 45 percent was earmarked for weed, insect, and disease management, nutrient research, and cultural production practices. Food safety has emerged as a priority more recently.

Research has been carried out predominantly by USDA and University of California researchers, along with cooperative projects with the University of Arizona for lettuce grown in the Imperial Valley-Yuma district.

Among notable board-funded advances for the industry have been release of the iceberg lettuce cultivars Salinas and Tiber, release of USDA and UC germplasm as bases for many commercial lettuce varieties, development of shipping containers and shipping and cooling practices, development of efficacy data leading to pesticide registrations, and partnerships in IPM practices for insect pests.

California contributes 72 percent of the nation's head lettuce, 68 percent of the romaine, and 74 percent of the spinach.

In California, harvested lettuce acreage (head, leaf and romaine) went from 211,000 in 2001 to 230,000 in 2006. During the same period, harvested spinach acreage (fresh and processed) increased from 21,000 to 40,300. Spring mix acreage and production statistics have not been developed.

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