YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollectionsLettuce

Harvests in full swing in our Valley fields

January 24, 2002

During the winter we have many visitors from other states and Canada traveling throughout the area. Many are in awe of the fact that local farmers are harvesting many crops in mid-winter.

A frequent question to local farmers and agricultural experts is "What are you harvesting now?" The following is a partial list of what is being harvested locally this time of the year.

Asparagus season is in full swing in the desert. Newly emerging spears are hand-cut from mid-January through mid-April at one- to three-day intervals, depending upon temperature and growth rate. Early in the season, fields are harvested every two or three days, but during warm weather fields are cut daily.

Spears are cut at an angle and just below the soil surface with an asparagus knife. Spindly or otherwise deformed spears are cut and discarded to allow for growth of marketable spears.


Cut spears must be about 10 inches long to allow for a trim to 9 inches during packing. Harvested spears are placed on the beds in bunches, gathered and placed in field boxes, carried out of the field on makeshift wheelbarrows and hauled to sheds for grading, trimming, packing and cooling.

Asparagus is packed in various containers, including 30-pound loose, 28 bunches per crate (28-pound net weight) and 11 bunches per crate (11-pound net weight). Another commonly used container holds six 2.25-pound bunches (net weight 13.5 pound) often used for international shipment. Some of the product is packed out in 30-pound wood crates chiefly for Japanese export. There also are 27-pound cartons (12 2.25 pound bunches) for domestic and export, 15-pound cartons of asparagus tips for domestic use

and some 15-pound cartons packed loose for export mostly to Europe. Some asparagus may be trimmed to 5 1/2-7 inches in length and packed as tips in 15-pound cartons.

Head or iceberg lettuce is another commodity being harvested. There are three major types of harvesting-field pack in cartons, wrapped and bulk. For field pack, ground harvest, crews of 20 to 30 people are split into small units called "trios." There are two cutters and a packer in a trio. They often rotate jobs and are normally paid by the number of cartons packed. The solid lettuce heads are cut, trimmed to four to five wrapper leaves and packed 24 per carton. A carton weighs a minimum of 50 pounds gross weight.

Roughly 40 percent of the crop is packed as "wrapped." In most cases, cut and trimmed heads are stacked on a table of a field-harvesting machine. Workers then wrap and seal individual heads in film or plastic bags. The wrapped heads are packed either 24 or 30 heads per carton. Lettuce is hauled to a cooler and vacuum cooled prior to storage in a cold room. Vacuum cooling removes field heat in roughly 15 minutes

Many companies bulk harvest lettuce. Bulk harvested lettuce is called "trimmed and cored" lettuce. The heads are loaded into bulk bins and trucked to a processing plant. The heads are cooled, washed and precut into various types of retail packages for the food service industry.

Fast food outlets, restaurants, institutional use, airlines and schools use salad products.

Broccoli is normally field-packed. A crop will be harvested two to three times depending upon the market. Broccoli heads are removed by hand. Leaves are stripped from the stem and the heads are placed on the

table of a field-harvesting platform. Heads are chosen on the basis of size and shape. Heads should be 3 to 8 inches in diameter. Heads should be free from defects such as "cat-eye," broken florets, dirt, debris, and irregular bead size. Normally, bunches are comprised of two to four heads 8 inches in length and are secured together with a rubber band.

If the market price is high, more heads may be used to make a bunch. Broccoli is packed in 26-pound, waxed-fiberboard cartons containing 14 or 18 bunches.

A small amount of the crop is sold as field-cut "florets." The loose florets are placed in mesh bags and packed in 9- to 12-pound cartons containing three to four bags each.

There is some "crown-cut" broccoli sold. Crown-cut broccoli consists of the top dome with no more than 5 inches of length including stem. While crown-cut broccoli commands a high-market price, the harvesting process is slow and meticulous. Crown-cut buyers have demanding standards for size, shape and color of crowns.

All cauliflower is field harvested using tractor-towed harvesting platforms. Each platform requires a crew of 18 to 21 people. Fields are normally harvested two to four times or more depending upon the market. Mature curds (6 inches or larger) are hand-harvested and trimmed. The field workers trimming curds say they are making a "corona," or crown cut. The curds are placed on the tables of field-harvesting machines.

Cauliflower should never be allowed to roll over and to touch the white curd on the table. Scuffed curds are subject to decay and browning.

The packing crew wraps curds in plastic bags, seals the butt end and packs the curds according to size. Nine-curd cartons (9s), 12s, 16s and 20s are used, but shippers pack mostly 12s. Some cauliflower is cut into florets for the food service trade. Cartons containing two 3-pound bags of 1 1/2- to 3-inch florets are common.

Other commodities being harvested now include carrots, cabbage, leaf lettuce, spinach, artichokes, salad greens and oriental vegetables.

If you have a morning free, take a drive around the Valley and see all the harvesting activities taking place. Bear in mind, for your own safety, do not enter the fields without permission of the grower. And do not take produce without permission of the grower. What you may consider surplus is still product.

>> Keith S. Mayberry is the vegetable crops adviser at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>>The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles