Growers continued to face muddy conditions in Yuma, Ariz., the week of Jan. 25 as a powerful storm dropped record rainfall days before in desert growing region.

Winter is prime time for lettuce in Yuma, with nearly all of California’s major lettuce grower-shippers relocating there to keep leafy green supplies consistent.

The Associated Press reported more than two inches of rain fell between Jan. 22 and 23, with fresh vegetable harvesting at only 30% to 40% of its capacity. The National Weather Service is forecasting warmer, drier weather for the area with a slight chance of rain for the week of Feb. 1.

John D’Arrigo, president of D’Arrigo Bros. Co., Salinas, Calif., said Yuma crews have been struggling to get harvesting equipment into the fields, sometimes towing equipment with trucks, and were forced to stop work during heavy rains. But the company is making shipments to its customers, with no delays filling orders despite difficulties getting enough workers for harvest crews. D’Arrigo said he doesn’t expect shelf life to be greatly reduced because of extra moisture.

“We’re having a heck of a time getting into the field and getting the lettuce out,” D’Arrigo said.

Season-to-date shipments are down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with western Arizona iceberg movement at 8,940 40,000-pound truckloads as of Jan. 26, compared with 9,706 truckloads in 2009. Romaine shipments from the area as of Jan. 26 were 4,589 truckloads, compared with 5,171 truckloads in 2009.

The USDA is also reporting wide variation in size and quality for lettuces shipping from Yuma and California, with iceberg packed in 24s selling for $9.35 on Jan. 27, and 24s of romaine selling for $9.

The real damage from the wet weather may not be felt until 2011, D’Arrigo said, because the muddy conditions are causing soil damage that may reduce overall lettuce yields next winter.

Coastline Produce, Salinas, also delayed harvest during the heaviest rains and struggled with equipment bogged in the mud. Mark McBride, sales office manager, said after Jan. 22 the rain kept crews from cutting as much lettuce as they normally would, but there were no major issues shipping lettuce on time from the area during the week. Some iceberg lettuce was left in the field, McBride said, because the focus shifted to cutting younger, healthier plants whose quality would hold up better.

But growers said if record rainfall continues into March, supply gaps are likely as lettuce production moves north from the California and Arizona deserts to Salinas. So far, planting schedules for Salinas are on schedule, growers said, but excessive moisture can slow considerably lettuce growth and quality at the start of spring.

Steve Church, vice president of operations for Church Bros. LLC, Salinas, said fields of arugula in Yuma were left unharvested because machines can’t work through deep mud. Crews were able to cut romaine and iceberg during the week, Church said, with arugula the only commodity the company has delayed orders, for a two-pound foodservice bag and spring mix salads.

“Everything slowed down a bit,” Church said.