Welcome to the Winter Lettuce Capital of the World! Yes, we hold another unique title. In addition to being the Sunniest City in the World, Yuma County is the Lettuce Capital; and you’re kidding yourself if you think the two are unrelated.
Undisputedly, agriculture is the number one industry for Yuma County. According to a 2013 University of Arizona study, agriculture produces an estimated $2.5 billion a year into the Yuma economy. This is due to our rich soil (sediments deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years), progressive farmers (who explore and utilize the latest theories and technology in their fields), sufficient labor (highly skilled and motivated work force) and senior rights to irrigation water.
Workers installing sprinklers for irrigation on a local farm field
Yuma County is responsible for 90% of all leafy vegetables grown in the United States, November through March. So, while New Yorkers are bundling up to go get dinner, Yuma farmers are in the sun producing, harvesting and processing the lettuce that goes in their salads, on their burgers and in their tacos. The Yuma area is home to nine salad plants that produce bagged lettuce and salad mixes. During peak production months, each of those plants processes more than 2 million pounds of lettuce per day.
There are also 23 cooling plants in the Yuma area, where powerful refrigeration units quickly cool truck-sized loads of vegetables that are then loaded into caravans of semi-trucks. Crops harvested here in the morning can be in Phoenix by afternoon and on the East Coast in three to four days.
Harvesting melons, one of the many crops grown in the Yuma area
While lettuce is the largest winter crop, it is by no means the only one. There are over 175 different crops grown in the Yuma area year round! The list includes alfalfa, Bermuda grass seed, cotton, dates, lemons, melons and wheat. Desert Durum accounts for 95% of wheat grown in Yuma County, and about two-thirds of that is exported to Italy for use in making premium pastas.
Another unique fact about Yuma County crops is that some growers also cultivate kosher wheat to be used by Orthodox Jews to bake matzo. Kosher rules dictate that the wheat is to not receive moisture immediately prior to harvesting, so Yuma’s desert conditions and tightly-controlled irrigation make it a perfect location to grow this crop.
Yuma County ranks No. 1 in Arizona for lemons, tangelos and tangerines as well as watermelons and cantaloupes. Meanwhile, a local feedlot has some 120,000 head of beef cattle. A local dairy not only milks cows but processes its milk for markets across the state.
The unmistakable golden color of wheat is seen often in the fields around Yuma
On top of all the fields growing amazing produce, Medjool dates are another hot commodity of the area. Dates are a magical fruit (no, not like beans), that are recorded in history thousands of years ago. They have been a popular food all this time because of their amazing health benefits. One small date is packed full of protein and essential nutrients. The list is amazingly long and we have plenty of info to cover on this site!
Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years. Their importance in history is apparent as they are mentioned over 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an. Of all the variety of dates in existence, the “Cadillac of dates” is the Medjool Dates. Medjool dates are common to the Yuma area, but their history and arrival is an interesting story…
In 1927, the Medjool date palms in Morocco became diseased and began to die off. Dr. Walter Tennyson Swingle was sent by the U.S. Government to assist and try to save the species. He brought eleven offshoots back to the United States and were quarantined in Nevada. Under Dr. Swingle’s care, nine of the offshoots survived. In 1944, the nine offshoots were sent to places in the United States that hosted the warm and arid conditions date palms need to grow, and Yuma was on that list. The four original dates responsible for the date industry in Yuma are still alive and kicking.
But why are Medjool Dates so popular? Most dates are a bit dry, but Medjools are unusually moist and contain remarkable levels of vitamins and nutrients, including copper, potassium, vitamins B5 and B6. They also have high levels of carbohydrates, which means they’re good for helping you maintain high level of energy throughout the day.
Dates are a remarkable fruit and are important to the Yuma Ag industry, just like all the other vegetables grown here. As long as people need to eat, farmers will continue to keep Agriculture the leading industry in Yuma.