Because most people think of Arizona as a big, dusty desert, they are surprised to learn that agriculture is Yuma County's the number one industry - and that Yuma is the winter vegetable capital of the world.
In fact, the agriculture industry in Yuma County represents an annual gross economic return of $3.2 billion, or more than one-third of Arizona's annual total of $9.2 billion.
Several things account for that amazing total: Plentiful sunshine, rich soil, ample labor and high-quality irrigation water.
With mild winters, little danger of hard frost and more than 350 days of sunshine a year, Yuma County enjoys the longest growing season in the country. And while the winter is notable for the emerald and ruby patchwork formed by vast vegetable fields, something is either growing or happening in Yuma county fields even during the hottest months of the year.
One reason is because those fields - sediments deposited by the Colorado River over millions of years - have some of the most fertile soil in the country.
But with less than three inches of rainfall annually, water was the missing component, though the mighty Colorado flowed nearby. The Bureau of Reclamation's first big water project in the West gave nature a hand, with construction of the first dam on the Colorado and completion of the Yuma Siphon - delivering water through a huge tunnel built under the riverbed - in 1912, the same year Arizona became a state.
Now, of the 230,000 acres of land utilized for agriculture in Yuma County, 100 per cent are irrigated with Colorado River water delivered by one of the county's seven irrigation districts. Every single field in the county is also laser-leveled and graded using GPS technology, making Yuma's irrigation network one of the most efficient in the world.
All this has made Yuma County first in the state - and THIRD IN THE NATION - for vegetable production. In fact, about 90 percent of all the leafy vegetables grown in the U.S. from November through March are grown in and around the Yuma area.
To put this in perspective, 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 two million pounds of lettuce per day.
There are also 23 cooling plants in the Yuma area, where powerful refrigeration units bring truck-sized loads of vegetables from field to shipping temperatures in less than half an hour. Crops harvested here in the morning can be in Phoenix by afternoon and on the East Coast in three to four days. (Field note: Lettuce sold by the head is usually field-packed into cardboard boxes, that bound for salad plants are harvested into blue plastic bins.)
But lettuce is just part of the story: More than 175 different crops are grown in the Yuma area, including many grown to seed here because of our perfect growing conditions. For example, Yuma County ranks number one in Arizona for lemon, tangelo and tangerine production, and for watermelons and cantaloupes; a local cattle company usually has more than 120,000 head of beef cows on its lot.
There also are more than 40,000 acres of wheat grown in this region. Desert durum comprises about 95 percent of Arizona's wheat crop, with two-thirds of that exported -- mainly to Italy for use in making premium pasta. Yuma growers also grow kosher wheat to used by Orthodox Jews to bake matzo (or matzoh), the unleavened bread wafers that are eaten at Passover. Because the rules for kosher production include that the wheat not receive moisture immediately prior to harvest, Yuma's desert conditions and controlled irrigation make it a perfect spot to grow this specialty crop.
Dates are another local crop with Biblical roots. Date production in the Yuma area is now total about 10 million pounds a year, a $30 to $35 million dollar industry that employs more than 2,000 people annually.
The oldest known tree crop cultivated by humans, dates have been a key food source for more than 6,000 years. Because of a disease outbreak in Morocco, eleven Medjool offshoots were brought to the United States in 1927. To be sure they were disease- free, the trees were quarantined in Nevada and later transplanted to California, and in 1944, offshoots of the original trees were brought to Bard Valley near Yuma.
Thanks to ideal soil and weather, the area around Yuma and Bard is now the world's largest producer of premium-quality Medjools. Dates are harvested from the end of August through the first weeks of October. Each date palm must be climbed approximately 16-18 times a year to carry out hand operations necessary to ensure a good crop, including pollination, thinning, separating strands of fruit with metal rings to help the air circulate, and finally, bagging the date bunches.
Dates are high in fiber, potassium and anti-oxidants and contain no fat. They are an organic product, as no pesticides or chemicals are used on the trees or the dates. Many date confections are made locally, along with a local favorite: Dates shakes, or milkshakes made with ice cream and dates.
A crop of new agritourism experiences is popping up around the Yuma area, and the Yuma Visitors Bureau is encouraging folks in the agriculture industry to grow even more through a new Agri-Experience Grant Program. Keep checking back to see what's sprouting!
"Field to Feast" Agriculture Tours
Visitor Information Center
201 N. 4th Avenue, 783-0071 (800-293-0071)
Since 2011, the Yuma Visitors Bureau has offered hands-on tours of lettuce and vegetable growing areas from January through March. Our Field to Feast tours include an opportunity to harvest fresh produce from a special field grown just for us at the University of Arizona research farm, a narrated look at the nation's "winter vegetable capital" and a delicious lunch made from Yuma fresh produce by culinary arts students at Arizona Western College. Check out our recipe for a fresh morning of fun:
UCDRC Farm Smart program
University of California Desert Research & Extension Center 1004 E. Holton Rd., El Centro, 760.791.0261 Programs for winter visitors held in January and February help to support school field trips to the research farm during the rest of the year. Includes farm tour, musical entertainment, lunch, door prizes and giveaways, educational presentation - and a chance to pick produce to take home (bag provided). Reservations required - call for 2011 prices and hours.
Main Street Cafe
214 W. Main Street, Somerton, (928) 627-9222
The Main Street Cafe will be offering culinary classes featuring homegrown ingredients. Classes will include topics such as Hands-On Tamales, Desert Sonoran Nopales and much more. Classes will be offered every Tuesday and Thursday beginning in January.
645 S. 2nd Ave. (928) 783-3530
Tina Clark offers heritage cooking classes at the festively decorated Tina’s Cocina, part of a historic church that’s now known as St. Paul’s Cultural Center. Gather some friends, pick a date—and prepare for a delightful culinary adventure.
The date is one of the oldest cultured tree crops in the world, dating back more than 5,000 years. Medjool dates, which originated in Morocco, are naturally sweet, fat- and cholesterol-free and high in fiber and anti-oxidants. Medjools were introduced here in 1944, and this area is now the world's largest producer, thanks to a favorable microclimate along the Colorado River. Yuma County also ranks number one in Arizona for lemon, tangelo and tangerine production, and for growing watermelons and cantaloupes.
Bard Date Company
Retail outlet at Basket Creations & More
245 S. Main Street, 341.9966
Bard Date Company, one of the largest growers in the area, has a retail outlet at Basket Creations and More downtown. The store offers all grades of Medjools and chopped, cooking and pitted dates, plus many different gift packages, souvenirs, custom gift baskets and Southwest jellies and candies. Date shakes, too. Tours of the groves are given once a month on Saturdays, sign up at the store. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday thru Saturday all year.
Martha's Gardens Date Farm
9747 Avenue 9-3/4 E, 726.8833
This date farm near Arizona Western College sells a variety of products including dates, dried fruits, nuts, natural and organic gourmet foods. They also offer deli sandwiches, date shakes, ice cream and more. The store is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday from mid-October through the end of May. Take Highway 95 east to Avenue 9E, go south to Araby-Blaisdale Road (along north side of train tracks), then east and watch for signs.
3392 W. County 16-1/2 St., Somerton, 446.8706
Pick your own blackberries, peaches, tangelos or apples. Crops are usually available in January, February, March, May, June. May is blackberry season and tangelos are usually ready from January to mid-March.
Abundant sunshine and the nation's longest growing season makes gardening a year-round pleasure. To see how locals rise to the challenge of making the desert bloom, check out these public gardens.
Imperial Date Gardens
1517 York Road, Bard, Calif.
At this family-owned date garden, you'll find a large assortment of gift packs, nuts, candies - and winter visitors enjoying date shakes. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (all California time) from Sept. 15 to April 15. Tours offered for groups of 12 or more, call in advance. Take 4th Avenue across Colorado River, turn right on S-24 and follow signs for Imperial Dam; the date gardens are on west side of road.
4322 E. County 13th St., 726.6292
The Peanut Patch is a local favorite for visitors and residents alike, with a history that dates back to a post-World War II family of homesteaders who started growing peanuts on the Yuma Mesa. Today, it offers a wide variety of homemade fudge, mixed nuts, dried fruits and other creative delicacies. Free kitchen tours are given at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays during the winter travel season (reserve two weeks ahead for groups of 10 or more). Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday from October through April, closed on major holidays.
Moody Demonstration Garden
2200 W. 28th Street, 726.3904
The Robert J. Moody Demonstration Garden serves as a "living library" to show what plants can thrive in Yuma's desert climes. Started with seed money from the City of Yuma, Yuma County and the University of Arizona, the garden now depends on donations and volunteers to keep growing. Admission is free, and the garden is open year round during daylight hours. Tours are available by calling in advance.
Yuma Conservation Garden
2520 E. 32nd St., 317.1935
This 28-acre educational garden features native Sonoran Desert plants, a duck pond, antique farm machinery, desert tortoises, a botanical garden, walking paths and a 100-seat outdoor classroom. The garden and machinery display are open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays from November through April. Midweek tours can be scheduled by appointment for groups of at least 10 people. Admission free, donations welcomed. Take 32nd Street to the fairgrounds, look for garden entrance at west end of parking area.