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Pandemic, labor woes challenge produce industry

Todd Fitchette John Boelts
Yuma, Ariz. grower John Boelts farms about 2,000 acres of produce, including head lettuce and other crops in southern Arizona.
Virus-related closures sent John Boelts and other growers scrambling to complete harvest before the economic downturn.

Growing lettuce has its challenges, but consumers want it and when demand gets ahead of supply and the systems designed to move it to market work as designed, it can be profitable for growers like John Boelts. It can also be hugely horrific when a world pandemic turns all that on its ear.

Boelts owns and operates Desert Premium Farms in Yuma, Ariz. During the year he will grow a variety of crops to keep his owned and rented land producing food for human consumption, livestock forage, or fiber in the form of Upland cotton.

In late summer as daylight hours become noticeably shorter and temperatures tease residents with a more favorable fall in southwest Arizona, Boelts and farmers like him become part of a transition in produce production. As harvest season winds down in California's Salinas Valley, a flurry of activity begins in Yuma and the low desert region to continue a year-round effort to supply markets with fresh produce.

Boelts' first late summer crop of melons was about three weeks into its 60-day growing season when he started planting lettuce east of Yuma near the community of Wellton. Lettuce planted following Labor Day weekend matured and was harvested in time to be delivered to grocery stores ahead of Thanksgiving.

The late summer lettuce crop may benefit from warmer days and all the right conditions to grow fast, but university researchers also know that the high soil temperatures that time of year can also harbor pathogens that cause fusarium wilt, which can kill a lettuce crop. Boelts appreciates the work from researchers at the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture to find answers to save his late summer lettuce crop.

"That's a big deal for us," he said. "It's good to see them, the seed producers and breeders doing the tremendous amount of work they're doing on this."

That early-season lettuce will take 58-65 days from planting to harvest.

The day Boelts planted his first lettuce crop in the Wellton area in mid-September the high temperature would not reach 100 degrees for the first time in several months. This followed temperatures Labor Day weekend that exceeded 120 degrees in much of the low desert region.

The day of harvest was much more temperate with highs in the mid 70's and the typical dry desert humidity that makes the region an enviable venue to spend winter.

Equipment efficiencies

Boelts widened his lettuce planters to plant double rows across six beds at a time versus four rows to save money and time.

"I've been pretty happy with that," he said.

Growers will plant produce in double lines or more to improve efficiency. Boelts says there is effectively a law of diminishing return in this. Some crops do better in single lines, others can improve efficiency and quality in multiple lines. The point, he says, is to find that sweet spot in efficiency and quality.

Decades ago single-line cauliflower became double-line in that march for better returns, but that fell out of favor with growers as crop uniformity became an issue.

As costs continue to rise growers have found that the two-line head lettuce "is still the mainstay for carton lettuce," he said. "Most of the carton lettuce is grown that way, which is where you get your best uniformity and most consistent size of production."

Other crops, like green leaf and red leaf lettuce will tend to be planted in three lines, whereas crops like spinach will be planted in much wider beds across multiple rows.

The different row configurations also factor into irrigation costs. Where furrow irrigation may work for the narrower beds of two-row lettuce, the wide beds with as much as six or more rows of produce must be irrigated with overhead sprinklers.

As circumstances would have Boelts said there were some issues with the Salinas Valley harvest related to quality and volume that drove prices much higher.

"When we started harvesting here in November, everybody was hungry for good quality product," he said. "The markets were robust, but they tailed off quickly."

Pandemic closures

Last season's low desert lettuce harvest ended in a way nobody could have predicted. As the COVID-19 pandemic had already shut down California and reports of a spreading illness were widespread in the media, Boelts said the fresh produce industry was just trying to get everything harvested before the economic collapse. That did not happen as growers were forced to disc under their crops. In other cases, growers lost marketing opportunities because of kinks in the system that could not sell lettuce that was commanding prices several dollars above breakeven.

"You'd see sometimes where somebody like me had a little bit of open-market lettuce that was selling for $15 to $20, but it couldn't be sold because you couldn't move it all into the markets," he said.

As restaurants and schools were forced by government edict to close, lettuce that otherwise could have sold for a profit was wasted. Boelts said one of the largest marketers of fresh produce lost several hundred million dollars as a result.

Food safety

The concept of food safety and the day-to-day practices to ensure that the produce Boelts grows across about 2,000 acres of land is so important to him that he handles that aspect himself.

"I’m not only the grower and owner of this operation, but I'm the head of food safety for us – that tells you what kind of priority it is for me," he said. "I probably spend more time working on that and working with researchers, trying to work on some of these key questions than any other extracurricular thing that I do."

Boelts believes good work has been done to determine potential contamination routes for pathogens that cause e-coli and salmonella, but more must be done to assure the public and regulators while ensuring produce is free of pathogens that can cause food borne illness. While irrigation water can be a transmission route for pathogens, he believes it has been over-estimated as the sole cause of food borne illness outbreaks in the United States.

"There's a lot of focus on water right now and while it should get some focus there has been way too much focus on it as a transmission source," he said. "Most of the ways that we irrigate our crops here in Yuma County and the way we produce our crops – there is no real way for the water to contaminate the crop because we use furrow irrigation and the water never touches the edible portion of the crop.

It is important to understand that irrigation water and the water used for dust control can be a vehicle for pathogen transmission, but it is not the only method, he said. Growers regularly apply water to their dirt roads for dust control. Much of that water used in dust control is treated to prevent the potential overspray onto crops from possibly contaminating them.

Outside of irrigation water, animals are thought to be a source of pathogen transmission, and as such there is considerable effort spent to control their access to farms. These efforts can be handled in-house or with companies geared for it. This includes programs to encourage birds to go elsewhere as some, he said, are quite prolific at consuming freshly planted seeds and destroying young crops.

Other food safety practices include sanitation efforts of harvest crews that include portable hand washing stations and the sanitation of knives used to cut produce during harvest.

"I would say we have the safest food supply in the world, and certainly the most affordable to go with it," he said. "Food safety is a priority for all of us and the industry survives and thrives based on our ability to be perfect all the time."

H2A failures

The H2A program that allows foreign residents to work in U.S. agriculture has largely been a failure because it was designed not to work, he said. To properly administer that program requires the oversight and regulation of five different federal bureaucracies.

"It was designed by the labor unions and was passed through as a compromise in the amnesty days," he said.

To comply with the program is a year-round process that involves teams of lawyers and staff to administer housing, which he said tends to benefit the large employers who can absorb those costs. The small farmer with limited capital is financially unable to comply.

"I've been in the trenches in Congress with some of our best leaders with the best foresight who for years told us that there's no political palate to do the right thing," he continued.

The irony of this for growers like Boelts, who serves as first vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, is the International border is just a few miles from his farm. There are over 1.5 million people who live within a short commute that know and understand agriculture and are willing to put in the hard work required to manage and harvest the crops grown in the region. Boelts said the issue is not one of wages as he remains a proponent of paying appropriately for the work. The issue is remains how federal law has greatly tightened a willing labor supply beneficial to residents of two countries.

"It's been very difficult to find enough workers, especially for our melon crop this year," he said. While the pandemic played a part in this, Boelts still criticizes Congress for "not doing their duty to reform the laws as needed."

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