Thursday, January 22, 2015

Where does your food come from?...Yuma!

If it's green and it's winter, your food probably comes from the agricultural area around Yuma, AZ.

Whether it's trees, wine grapes, row crops, meat or fish, we've always been fascinated by the business and technical skills required to grow and distribute agricultural products. We've taken many university courses on these topics and have worked in the business, but some of the best learning events we've attended over the years have been those sponsored by growers who do it for a living.

Since we were in Yuma, AZ for a while, and Yuma is the agricultural center of the U.S. during the cold winter months, we made sure we were the first people to sign up for two very popular agri-business seminars offered by local farmers here each year.

The University of AZ Ag Extension is extremely active in the Yuma area. They have been instrumental in developing the best seed sources and farming practices that work in Yuma's unique climate and soils.

Celery is a more recent crop added to the Yuma mix. It is incredibly profitable to grow. We like celery, but it's surprising that it's such a cash crop.

Ed Harrison is a fifth generation farmer in the Yuma area. His family farms 7,000 acres. We also learned the origin of Swastika Bridge bridge, which is only about a mile from where his family homesteaded in the early 1920s.

Some of the fine local produce we picked. The yellow cauliflower and purple romaine lettuce were particularly interesting. The same produce we picked will be in grocery stores throughout the Northeast in two days.

Yuma growers custom plant and pick their products. Different packers like different mixes of produce placed in their specific containers. Everything is done according to the packers' orders.

Most of the equipment you see in Yuma are simple harvest aids. They just transfer products from the field to refrigerated trucks. The pictures below show a rare and expensive piece of equipment. This is a custom processing plant on wheels. The produce is custom picked, measured, cleaned, placed in custom packaging and shipped directly from the field to your local store throughout the U.S.

Where the soil is too sandy for row crops, they just grow date palms. Every date palm tree here was propagated from the original trees brought from Morocco back in the early 1920s. We saw the six remaining Mother trees. They were just out in the field by an ag storage building. You'd think they would be cordoned off with a special plaque of some kind.

And you can bank all of this green as well!

In a multiple choice, which of the following agricultural lands would make you the most money? To make it easier, let's define making money as the land that has the highest Cap Rate and ROI per acre.
  • Ultra premium vineyard land in the heart on Napa Valley's best appellations?
  • America's Garden: The California Central Valley?
  • Fertile, deep, black soil in Iowa's best corn producing regions?
  • Timber land in Northern Idaho where the six most widely used wood-product trees grow like weeds and disease and fire threats are low?
  • Prime citrus growing land in Florida?
  • Low elevation desert land around Yuma, AZ?
Based on the blog topic, you've probably guessed the answer is the Yuma desert. The result is surprising, but true. Rather then lay out a spreadsheet (which would be the most fun for me but not for you), here are the basic facts:
  • Yuma ag land isn't the cheapest to buy or lease (Idaho and Iowa are lower), but the prices matched with the diversity of crop options give it a clear edge over all the others.
  • The Yuma growing season and climate isn't the best due to high and low extremes (California, especially the Central Valley, has much more moderate highs and lows), but it is the only land that can be successfully farmed and kept productive for 365 days out of the year.
  • Water costs aren't the lowest (Idaho wins that one), but water rights established and refined over 100 years make the cost and availability of irrigation among the most cost effective in the nation.
  • Operating costs (equipment, fuel, agricultural inputs, labor) in Yuma are among the lowest in the nation.
  • The diversity of crops that can be grown in Yuma is unmatched. In addition, the nature of the farming allows growers to quickly take advantage of fast moving markets. They can change their crop combinations faster.
It's good to see a farming region where family growers can be extremely successful financially. So why isn't there a mad dash to buy ag land in Yuma and drive prices higher? Mostly it's because the largest growers have been in the region since the 1920s. These families have been working this land and growing their enterprises for four or five generations. Land rarely comes up for sale (when it does, the locals know about it first and scoop it up) and leases are closely held and maintained. That's unlikely to change any time soon.

Wherever you are, support the local farmers.

We spend a lot of time at farmers' markets around the country. That's about as local as most people can get with their food, but while up in Idaho for half the year, we eat foods we grow or forage on our place, eat fish we catch in local streams and lakes, eat lamb and beef that are born and raised on properties that adjoin ours, eat wild game from our land, drink milk from cows and goats raised by neighbors, and so on. It's nice to have a little of that same "ultra-local food from sources you know well" feeling while spending the winter 1,500 miles away from Northern Idaho.


  1. Do you think they plant crops on a schedule so that the picking is done in the whole valley, a few days apart? That would seem to make economic sense.

    Today I bicycled through Dome Valley, along the Gila River, upstream of Yuma. The road was clean and empty. I have been there during picking and the road is full of trucks and mud.

    How could a person find the picking schedule a month in advance?

  2. There are three major growing regions (Yuma Valley, Dome Valley, Bard Valley) in the Yuma ag region. There is always a harvest going on somewhere in the region. So the labor load of harvest is spread pretty evenly throughout the year. This is an advantage because it makes planning for labor needs much easier than it is in regions where the harvest happens once a year and the high demand results in labor shortages. During the summer when harvest labor is less in demand, they'll keep crews busy with irrigation related projects.

    The farmers keep each parcel of land productive throughout the year. Rather than land leaving a field fallow, they'll plant alfalfa, durum wheat, or cotton when the hot weather won't allow for vegetables. They'll rotate vegetable crops constantly during the winter season based largely on consumer demand. That area you cycled through in Dome Valley will probably be full of trucks and mud once again a month from now (unless they've already rotated to wheat or hay). Once you see a field planted to wheat or hay, you'll know the vegetable season is over for that parcel and the road will be clean and empty for biking for a while.

  3. John:
    What's your understanding of their rights to the Colorado's water and how that ever decreasing supply plans into their future?

    1. The US has a treaty with Mexico specifying how much water needs to flow from the US to Mexico in the Colorado River. The agricultural water rights in the Yuma area allow basically as much water as needed to be pulled from the river. They largely "replace" that water with ground water to meet the requirements of what has to flow into Mexico. Of course, that groundwater isn't of the same quality as what is pulled out of the river for ag use, but it does seem to meet the requirements of the agreement. There is plenty of groundwater (and very close to the surface) in the Yuma area, but it is salty and has more ag runoff in it than the water coming out of the river.

      There are also plans for a desalination facility in the Yuma area. That may be in anticipation of the future flow of the Colorado and the possible need to use more ground water for irrigation in the future.