COACHELLA, Calif. — Optimism seemed to be an epidemic among California’s desert winter vegetable grower-shippers in mid-October.

The growing season benefited from near perfect weather conditions, they said.

Then came Oct. 27.

A storm roared down the Pacific Coast and raked the desert with winds approaching 50 miles per hour. Growers crossed their fingers.

“It turned out the wind was not a problem for the crops, but it just made work more difficult,” said Jack Vessey, vice president of Holtville-based Vessey & Co. Inc.

None of the company’s several vegetable crops was damaged by the winds, he said.

It was the same report from Baloian Farms, Fresno.

The company’s Thermal area farmland is at a slightly higher elevation than most Coachella Valley acreage and enjoys natural and planted windbreaks, said Jeremy Lane, sales manager.

Some grower-shippers were not 100% certain their crops had survived the storm.

“It’s a little too early to tell,” Mark McBride, sales office manager for Coastline Produce, Salinas, said Oct. 28.

But he was 100% certain about Coastline’s winter produce.

“This is going to be our best desert deal ever,” he said.

While most grower-shippers focused on the winds, eyes at Peter Rabbit Farms were fixed on the thermometer.

The winds brought chilly Arctic temperatures.
“There was a frost scare for a few hours,” said John Burton, general manager. “The temperature fell to 38 degrees in some parts of the (Coachella) valley.”

It was the other temperature extreme that caused the furrowed brow on Joe Colace, co-owner of Five Crowns Marketing, Brawley.

“Temperatures have been running above normal during the growing period, and the hotter weather has affected some crops,” he said.

Neither the storm nor the heat will be a major hurdle, in Colace’s view.

“We should have close to normal supplies to start the season,” he said.

The optimism epidemic may be a symptom of the industry’s surviving the recession.

“I think we’re going to have a fairly decent season, especially in relation to the past three years,” said Michael Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas. “The last few years have been a real challenge. We’ve tried to do the things that we needed to do to not only survive, but to thrive.”

One sign of recession survival is the stocking of organic produce by desert retailers, said Sue Heger, co-owner of Heger Organic Farms Sales, El Centro.

“Just a few years ago we didn’t see organic down here in the Imperial Valley,” she said.

River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, Salinas, has been focusing on coming out of the recession with greater emphasis on quality, consistency and efficiency, said Ted Mills, vice president of agricultural operations.

Among the changes is the implementation of what River Ranch calls its cut-to-cool process.

Refrigerated trailers are now used to haul all raw materials from farms more than an hour’s drive from processing plants, Mills said.

Another change is the development of a mechanized, automated romaine harvester, he said.

A major ally for the grower-shippers this season may be the calendar.

Christmas Day and New Years Day fall on Fridays this winter, which is good for sales, said Cliff Smith, owner of Imperial Sales, Holtville.

“Mid-week holidays are not good, because lots of people take the entire week off,” he said. “That sometimes hinders our market.”