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Imperial Valley Farm Tour

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I am here today to share something a little bit different with you. I recently traveled to the Imperial Valley in Southern California with the California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC). CFWC is a non-profit organization. They help to educate the public about farm water usage and the effect on consumers throughout the state of California.

Workers filling produce boxes in a farm field.

This is a tough subject for some, and I know there are varying opinions. I am only here to share what I learned from CFWC and the farmers we spoke to that day. The purpose of my trip to was learn more about farming in Southern California but also about the effects that the drought it having on the farming community.

I have nothing but respect for farmers. It is an extremely tough job and it’s not something they can usually just quit. Farms are passed down from generation to generation and they take their jobs very seriously.

A group taking a farm tour in a field with rows of produce

Every day on my way to work I pass through miles and miles of farmland. Our freeway here are a bit more scenic that they are in Los Angeles. When I am driving through I am constantly curious about what types of foods are being farmed. I also really have no idea how the fruits and vegetables make their way from the farm to our local grocery stores. Call me a nerd, but I love learning about this stuff.

Workers harvesting lettuce and filling boxes on a farm

I learned that over ½ million acres are farmed in the Imperial Valley. That might sound like a lot, but I am sure it is far less than what was able to be farmed years ago when we weren’t faced with the types of drought conditions we are today.

Red romaine lettuce growing in long rows

The farms in Imperial Valley do not face the same types of issues that the farmers in Northern California. During our visit, we went to one of the water canals. The water flows from the Colorado River down into the Imperial Valley. This means that the natural run off can be used to water crops.

Water collection canal at a produce farm

In northern California, this is not the case. According to a report from the University of California, the state lost an estimated $2 billion dollars and more than 17,000 jobs as a result of water shortages. Many families are not able to produce their crops and the farmlands sit unused.

Two men having a conversation in a fruit orchard

Farmers in the Imperial Valley utilize a “gravity system”. These canals or waterways are built so that no water pumps are needed to transport the water. Instead, the water flows down in elevation and is routed through the various districts. This minimizes energy usage and allows water to be delivered to the farmers when needed.

A field of scallions growing on a produce farm

With the use of the gravity system, it save tremendous amount of money on water transportation. If farms have to utilize a pump system to transport the water, it greatly increases their cost.

That doesn’t mean the farmers can just have however much water they want though. There are plenty of checks and balances put into place that allots a certain amount of water to be used by each farm.

Close-up of citrus fruit growing on a tree

Let’s talk about the farms we visit that day. Our first stop was Lawrence Cox Ranch where they farm a variety of vegetables. During our visit, Larry and his crew were harvesting lettuce. About 50% of their lettuce goes to grocery stores while the other half goes to food services like restaurants.

Hands holding a head of romaine lettuce with a field of romaine plants behind.

Larry farms about 26K heads of lettuce per acre. They can produce 120-160 thousand packages of lettuce each week. Lawrence Farms uses satellites to map and level fields for precise accuracy so that they can flow water on the gravity system and avoid using pumps for water distribution.

Hands holding freshly-harvested red romaine lettuce

We visited their cooling facility where the vegetables go before they are transported to their destination. The cooler helps to preserve the freshness and shelf life of the vegetables during transportation, both foreign and domestic. It was pretty cool to see the processing start to finish.

A forklift loading produce boxes into a cooling facility

One thing I thought was really interesting was that they utilize QR codes on the boxes, which allows them to track the location of the vegetables during transit. It contains information about the crop that it was harvested from and the location of the fields. Should there be a food safety issue, they can use the QR code to determine where the vegetable originated.

A warehouse filled with produce boxes

Our second stop of the farm tour was at Mesa Ranch. This 200-acre farm harvests oranges, lemons and dates. The big difference I noticed between Mesa Ranch and Lawrence Farms was the difference in the land they were farming on. Mesa Ranch was much drier and most sandy. It seemed to be much more of a dessert climate.

A dirt road through a citrus grove

The water distribution at Mesa Ranch is completely computerized. It is closely monitored and sent underground to transport to each of their trees. Each tree is watered for about four hours a day.

Water storage tanks enclosed in a fence

During the life span of the trees, different watering methods are used to water depending on the needs of the tree. The water “fans” are placed directly over the roots and spray water within a certain distance, which allows the trees to be watered exactly where they need it.

Close-up of a plant watering fan on a produce farm

The most interesting part of Mesa Ranch for me was learning about harvesting dates. Man, are these a pain in the butt or what! It really makes me appreciate the value in the food. It takes about five years before the farmers can harvest dates from the trees. The date trees are pollinated by HAND! Before they can pollinate the trees, they have to be de-thorned. There is about 250 million hours of labor to farm the 200 acres of trees.

A grove of date trees

All in all this trip was extremely informative for me. I was raised in Vermont where there is plenty are farming, but we don’t seem to face the same types of problems as we do in California. The fruits and vegetables produced here are not only sold in the state of California, but across the US. Additionally, they are exported to other countries as a source of revenue for the United States. Without the proper tools to farm the land we have, it directly affects the end consumer. It was a very eye opening experience for me.

A produce harvesting operation filling boxes in a farm field

For more information about farm water usage, please visit the California Farm Water Coalition website.

Leave a Comment

7 Responses
  1. Ashley | Spoonful of Flavor

    I always love farm tours because you learn so much about the industry, the farmers and the food. The water canals are really interesting and I’m glad to hear that south California doesn’t suffer the same drought problems are the northern part of the state. Thanks for sharing your experience! I always love learning a little more about the farming industry.

    1. Julianne - Beyond Frosting
      Beyond Frosting

      Hi Elizabeth, that is a great questions. The owner of the farm did say that the workers do not prefer to work “backwards”. The large tractor moves extremely slow, but in a forward motion so that it moves as they are harvesting. That seems to be the most efficient way for them to farm. He talked a lot of food safety and the precaution they take with the workers for food safety concerns. Larry also said that the average age of the farmer is also increased and I believe it is now around mid-forties. In order to accommodate the aging farmers, they have taken steps to make farming easier, like utilizing pallets to move produce instead of moving boxes. I asked one of our group leaders about where the workers are from, he said that they use a contracted labor company so they can be sure that standards are met.

  2. Erin @ Miss Scrambled Egg

    Gorgeous pictures! As a previous FFA’er, I really appreciate the work and dedication that agriculturally based careers hold. It’s great that you’re getting back to basics and appreciating all of the work that farmers do! 😀

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