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A Place In The Sun

Salinas Valley tackles a tough year yet remains hopeful

What’s new in the Salinas Valley? Plenty, depending on how you look at it—there are crops in the field at various stages of maturity, there have been dramatic weather shifts, and demand continues to seesaw for many of the Salad Bowl region’s top commodities. But it’s all good, or mostly good, as life in the Valley is frequently a mix of good, better, and ironic when it comes to supply and demand.

Indeed, perfect weather can bring oversupply and stiff competition for growers, but great prices for consumers. Gabe Gallster, sales manager at Green Star Produce Marketing, Inc., puts it this way: “Produce is the only industry where the nicer the product looks, the cheaper you can buy it.”

Rollercoaster Ride
Before the onslaught of early 2017 torrential rains and snowstorms, many grower-shippers in California and elsewhere had an abundance of good weather. The beginning of 2016 had started off with spiking markets and short supply, but the second half’s mild temperatures brought oversupply and soft markets.

“We had consecutive months with poor markets,” remarks Matt Brem, vice president at Produce West, Inc. “The markets were flooded with product and we were well under breakeven for many commodities for too long. We had optimal growing conditions and not as much demand on the retail side,” he says. “Demand in areas such as the East Coast or Midwest weren’t as strong.”

Green Star’s Gallster concurs. “We had great weather and there was a glut of product; no real storms that would cause anything to be short. A year ago, Texas had some issues and California had some great markets. People might have planted in anticipation of a short, but there were no hiccups.”

For Henry Dill, sales manager at Pacific International Marketing, it was more downs than ups. The last half of 2016 “had some of the poorest markets we’ve had to deal with in quite a while,” he says. “We’re not the only game in town anymore; there’s more local stuff grown on the East Coast, and you have Mexico to compete with, so it’s harder and harder to prioritize what to put in the ground each year.”

Of course, all that changed. Weeks of continuous rain flooded some fields, affecting harvests and spring plantings. Between November and February, Brem says the Valley had only one week with no precipitation, which he says may “affect the late spring and early summer markets with volume gaps in certain items.” Among these items are lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, oranges, organic potatoes, and strawberries.

Talking About Organics
The organics side of the coin was more positive, as sales have started to pick up again after plateauing. “California growers are trying to be smart in developing their crop plans,” explains Dill. “Many are expanding acreage in organics or converting conventional to organic as demand continues to grow.” Pacific International grows about 25 percent organic commodities, including leaf and head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery.

Assistant Ag Commissioner for Monterey County Bob Roach confirms the climbing acreage devoted to organics in and around Salinas. “We have significant organic production in Monterey County,” he notes, and it is “increasing slowly over time. It was a little flat from about 2010 to 2012, and now it’s on the rise again.”

Demand and a concerted effort to get organics into mainstream markets has contributed to the resumed growth. “You used to have to go to a farmers’ market or specialty market, and now every supermarket has an organic section getting more and more traction with everyday consumers,” Roach explains. “How the produce looks, the price, and the perceived value—all play a role in consumer psychology.”

“I always thought organic would have grown quicker than it has,” observes Brem, “but price still plays a big part. Some consumers will always buy organic, no matter what the price, but others will leave their beliefs about the value of organics at the register.”

In general, organics are still more expensive than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, but not always. “There are times when we’re selling organic cheaper than conventional,” points out Dill. “Retailers don’t move the same volume as conventional, and there’s less consistency as organic is more at the mercy of nature and pests. You’d be surprised how many calls we get about someone finding an aphid in their organic heart of romaine.”

Pesticide Problems
Pesticide use has been a hot button issue for years, and where conventional and organic diverge. For conventional grower-shippers in Salinas, the situation may get more complicated with new regulations about pesticide use in and around school zones.

“The proposed regulation essentially states that within a quarter mile of a school site, between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm, certain applications, such as aerial and fumigation, would be prohibited,” explains Roach. “Additionally, the schools would have to be notified on an annual basis about the materials and techniques that will be used.”

Roach says the regulations add more requirements for growers without proven risk, but could be passed due to an alliance between activists and teacher unions. “There was a report a few years ago that did not demonstrate risk to exposure because of safeguards already in place,” he emphasizes. Regardless, the push is moving forward and “would be another regulatory requirement growers will have to comply with.”

Water and Workers
Water and labor issues are not new headaches for Golden State growers, but there was a new spin this year with stunning amounts of rain and big winter storms. The word ‘drought’ was replaced with ‘deluge’ as some growers had to contend with flooded fields instead of agonizing over every drop of water.

Salinas, however, is mostly immune from the shortage, having its own water source. Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says, “We’re in one of the lucky areas. If you look at the geology, we’re essentially operating at a sustainable level, and we have many projects that assist in the recharge cycle.”

Monterey County’s two reservoirs feed into the Salinas River, allowing groundwater to percolate closer to the surface. And with 12,000 acres of irrigated coastal lands using recycled or reclaimed water, coastal pumping and saltwater intrusion are also reduced.

So while Salinas is better off than most of California in terms of water, grower-shippers are not exempt from statewide challenges in labor. They are contending with a host of possible negatives from higher hourly wages to the Trump Administration’s trade policy and border crackdowns, which may have a major impact on securing adequate workers for planting and harvesting.

Dill says growers have been struggling to plan effectively: how many acres to plant of various commodities, organic versus conventional, and of course, labor. “When we put our plan together, we have to consider labor and factor in what we have available,” he says. “We have to set up our crews to consider how many acres a day we want to plant and harvest and how many people we need to get that done.”

Dill and others have been using the H-2A temporary visa program—whichis not without its pitfalls—to bring in non-U.S. workers, but no one is certain how or if the program will be in effect for the year.

“The labor situation will remain a concern,” confirms Groot. “We’ve had a shortage for the past several years and the escalating wage costs and overtime requirements are forcing farmers to look at what they can do to manage expenses.” With labor issues up in the air, the future may be more about high-tech equipment or machinery than human workers—though some crops, especially soft fruits, would require major breakthroughs in better mechanized handling.

“A lot of crops in Salinas are harvested manually,” Groot states, “and farmers are looking into options for mechanical harvesting. Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty as to how it will all work out.”

It’s About Optimism
Uncertainty is a major component of many business sectors, but even more so in perishables. “You have to be optimistic to be in agriculture,” asserts Roach. “That’s the nature of the business: you take what the market offers and keep going, and hope for a better market next year.”

There may be more downs than ups in some seasons, but most growers hold on for the next upswing. Salinas growers probably have it better than many, with available water, super soil, and surging demand for many of the region’s most popular commodities like leafy greens, strawberries, melons, and peppers.

Images: TBPfalzgraf; David Litman/


Chris O’Brien is a freelance writer and researcher based in Boulder, CO. He specializes in business trends with a focus on sustainable industries.