Sandwich shops may want to order a fall supply of erasers.

Lack of water trims California’s fall vegetable deal

Don Schrack
Staff Writer

While the BLT sandwich is not yet on the endangered species list, it may soon be a contender. As a result, foodservice operators may be forced to eliminate the popular sandwich from their menus — at least until the Yuma harvest kicks off.

The problem is California’s ongoing water woes, which have reduced plantings of fall lettuce in the Huron area of the San Joaquin Valley. Many California grower-shippers, suffering from a third consecutive year of drought and court-ordered reductions in water shipments, have cut back on lettuce acreage. Still others have opted out of Huron.

“We’re just going to try to get by with our Salinas Valley lettuce,” said Frank Ballesteros, a salesman at Diamond Produce LLC, Salinas, Calif.

The October-November lettuce supply could be an iffy proposition for retail and foodservice. It’s that time of the year when Salinas Valley lettuce packers and processors start planning the transition to Arizona. Entire plants are dismantled, loaded on flatbeds and shipped to Yuma.

Huron is supposed to fill the gap. This year, fallow fields are as abundant as the area’s jackrabbits.

“It’s horrible. Until they get some water out there, it’s going to stay that way,” Ballesteros said.

Some Huron-area growers have been able to purchase water at premium prices from other irrigation districts. The variable is whether their crops are diversified. Those with permanent crops, such as almonds, pistachios and stonefruit, have little choice but to try to salvage those large investments at the expense of row crops.

The burden of supplying fall lettuce falls on the shoulders of those who grow only vegetables. Some have been forced to reduce acreage. Others are more fortunate.

“We’ll be steady. We’ll have about the same volume as we did last year,” said Rick Russo, vice president of sales and marketing for River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, Salinas.

The Huron-area River Ranch growers got the water they needed, he said.

Projections for 2009 are not yet available from the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, but the trend is not pretty. Fall head lettuce acreage in 2008 fell to 7,100, down more than 14% from 2007, according to the county’s 2008 annual report. Back in 2004, the county reported that fall head lettuce grew on more than 10,000 acres, and there was another 9,000 acres of leaf lettuce.

Lettuce is not the west side’s only victim of the water shortage. Broccoli acreage for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif., is down 70% from last year — all because of a lack of irrigation water, said salesman Gene Van Bebber. The broccoli harvest for Pappas & Co. will begin the first week of November, he said.

Another commodity in short supply on the valley’s west side is optimism among grower-shippers. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar did little to improve emotions during his second visit to California, Oct. 11-12. The federal government will do what it can to help, he said, but he described California’s water system as “a huge mess that has been created over decades.”

Salazar’s position that the federal government can do little to help was not warmly received.

“They’re going to have to do something or we’ll all be sucking on rocks,” Van Bebber said.

The broccoli harvest at Stamoules Produce, Mendota, is scheduled to begin Oct. 26, a company spokesman said. Stamoules, which farms more than 14,000 acres of corn, bell peppers, melons and broccoli, is only marginally affected by the drought and the court rulings.

Over the years, the company has made a sizeable investment in wells and underground pipes that blend the well water with the more nutrient-laden water shipments from the north, the spokesman said.

There is one consolation to the west side water problems for sandwich shops: no popular sandwiches that call for broccoli.

E-mail dschrack@thepacker.com.

What's your take on California's water woes? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.