Farmers Devastated by Latest Romaine Lettuce Outbreak

Problem Lettuce Centers On Salinas.

All Other Growing Areas Deemed Safe

Note: Video and graphic resources supporting this press release are available here.

Today’s announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of expanding illnesses in the E. Coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with romaine lettuce is being met with frustration and heartbreak by California lettuce farmers.

The root cause of this and other recent outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce remain a mystery despite a concentrated focus on safety by leafy greens producers and government regulators.

“No one is more frustrated than the producers of leafy greens that outbreaks continue to be associated with our products,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a food safety program created in 2007 to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by lettuce and leafy greens.

“We are devastated as a leafy greens community when this happens,” said Dan Sutton, a farmer from Oceano, CA. “Our thoughts go to those affected by this outbreak. But that’s why we want to continue to work with governmental agencies to learn why this is happening so that we can improve.”

According to FDA and CDC, consumers are advised not to eat any of the specific products included in recent salad mix recalls and to avoid romaine lettuce from Salinas. At this time, romaine lettuce that was harvested outside of the Salinas region has not been implicated in this outbreak investigation.

“Right now, romaine is being harvested in Arizona and southern California growing areas that are not part of this outbreak and harvest is nearly complete in the Salinas Valley,” explained Horsfall.  “Public health agencies have stated that only product from the Salinas area is included in the consumer advisory. Romaine producers will be working closely with their customers to make sure all product from Salinas is removed from marketing channels, but romaine from any other growing area is safe for consumption.”

This means that romaine from the following regions is safe: Yuma, Phoenix, Southern Arizona, Northern Arizona, Northern California, Santa Maria, Southern California, Imperial Valley, Coachella, and Central Valley. Product from Mexico and other states is also cleared. Hydroponically and greenhouse-grown romaine is also not implicated in the outbreak.

“For the past year, producers have been voluntarily labeling romaine lettuce with information on harvest date and growing region,” explained Horsfall.  “Today, this information provides consumers, retailers and foodservice operators with assurances the products they are purchasing have been identified as safe for consumption. We are hopeful these actions by industry will minimize withdrawal of safe product from stores and restaurants and reduce food waste.”

The current outbreak is occurring at a time when the production of leafy greens in central California is transitioning to growing regions in southern California and Arizona. It appears that romaine lettuce involved in this outbreak was likely harvested in the Salinas Valley growing area in September and October.

“We are very hopeful that what we learn from these recent outbreaks will help us to strengthen our food safety practices,” said Horsfall, who emphasized that since an outbreak linked to romaine last Thanksgiving, California and Arizona leafy greens producers made several changes to the food safety practices required of farmers. The changes include updated protocols for irrigation and increased buffer zones between leafy greens farms and adjacent animal operations.

A very stringent set of food safety practices is enforced on leafy greens farms through the LGMA system. Horsfall explained that the role of the LGMA is to verify through government inspection that leafy greens producers are following a set of food safety practices on the farm. Each LGMA member is subject to 4 to 5 on-farm audits each year that are conducted by government officials. The LGMA is the most comprehensive food safety program for fresh produce in the world.

“As farmers, we never want outbreaks to happen,” stressed Sutton, who serves as the chairman of the LGMA. “We will continue to do everything we possibly can to improve our required practices, to improve the way we farm leafy greens and to make sure we can improve the safety of these products we are putting out to our consumers.

“The situation is heartbreaking,” continued Sutton. “I have a very young family and the products we grow go to my family’s dinner table. My children consume the very same products we are sending out to consumers across the nation. That’s something I think about every day.”

The LGMA is working closely with public health agencies and have volunteered to assist with investigations in any way possible. The organization is also working with other initiatives to conduct research to learn more about how romaine is the source of outbreaks. They invite the public, media and government officials to learn more about their program and the practices required of leafy green producers at www.lgma.ca.gov or by contacting them directly at (916) 441-1240.

Mechanically Harvesting Broccoli

Saving Labor Cost in Broccoli Harvest

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Josh Ruiz and Monsanto Seeds have partnered up to harvest broccoli mechanically. Ruiz is vice president of AG operations with Church Brothers Farms in Salinas.

“They brought us a genetic variety of broccoli where the head does sit up higher. When it comes to broccoli, all varieties have their heads mature at different rates,” Ruiz explained.

That being said, the fields must be harvested multiple times as the crop matures. With these new genetics, you can get it all done in one sweep.

“I want it to be as simple for my people because I want them to be happy. Cutting once and moving on is what makes them happy,” Ruiz said.

There are a bunch of growers around California, Arizona and in Mexico; they want to get that ground back and use it one more time before the season’s over.

“This gives them about a month’s worth of time back in their hands, which, in the world we live in, is huge,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said he is going to continue to develop mechanical harvesting for other crops.

“Iceberg and Romaine are the next two big projects,” he explained.

Iceberg is known to be the “holy grail.” Ruiz has a prototype in the works, and he’s willing to work with anyone who is willing to partner.

“The Broccoli Project, the last five years, has overwhelmed my team and me, but we are ready for the next challenge,” he said

“My day to day is focused on not only running the AG operations for Church Brothers, but I spend a lot of my day focused on innovation and how can we do things better, quicker, faster, cheaper,” he continued.

Ruiz is passionate about automation and innovation. He is currently working with lettuce, romaine, broccoli, cauliflower, spring mix, spinach, and kale.

He said his interest in mechanical harvesting is mostly based out of labor issues, but it goes further from there.

“I see this as the future. I’m not the computer guy, and I’m not the engineer, but I love that stuff, and I want to go find out how to make it possible for me to learn,” he said.

Approximately five years ago, Ruiz began his relations with Monsanto with the Broccoli Project.

“We just unveiled our brand new version of our machine, and I have no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be out there in the field. You’ll see it going down the Salinas Valley from here on out.”

Labor Contractor Fresh Harvest Deep in Vegetable Harvests

Fresh Harvest Relies on H-2A

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Steve Scaroni, along with his wife Brenda, owns Fresh Harvest, a premier labor provider, staffing and harvesting company for the agricultural industry in the western United States.

Steve Scaroni, with Fresh Harvest.

“Expansion for Fresh Harvest is coming, but the main emphasis is crops related to salads. They even expanded into citrus last year,” Scaroni said.

Fresh Harvest has also expanded into pears. Vegetables are the heart and soul of Fresh Harvest.

“Anything that goes into a salad, a lot of lettuce, romaine, broccoli; we touch a lot of salads every day,” he said.

The H-2A temporary agricultural program allows agricultural employers who expect a shortage in domestic workers to bring non-migrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural services for a temporary or seasonal nature.

“If it wasn’t for H-2A, I wouldn’t be in business,” Scaroni said.

Scaroni explained that the H-2A gets legal workers to serve his customers demands for the services he offers. A majority of the demands are labor and harvesting, along with other farm services.

“We’re bringing up 100 irrigators this year to put throughout the Salinas Valley because our Salinas customers can’t get enough irrigators,” he said.

Laborers that show great work ethic will be able to work for a longer period of time. A worker could technically stay if moved from contract to contract.

“If the timing works, he gets up to three years, but then he has to go back for 90 days,” Scaroni said.

Downey Mildew Continues to Challenge Leafy Greens

Downey Mildew Continues to Threaten Lettuce and Spinach

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm Director

One of the many facets that makes California Agriculture so successful is the hard-working group of farm advisors who assist growers with a multitude of plant and pest issues. Steve Koike, plant pathology farm advisor for UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cooperative Extension in Monterey County, noted, “It has been a fairly typical year, and I wouldn’t say any particular new disease has been noteworthy, which is good for the growers.”

Steve Koike, farm advisor of UC ANR Cooperative Extension, Monterey County.
Steve Koike, farm advisor of UC ANR Cooperative Extension, Monterey County.

Koike, whose research focuses primarily on understanding disease systems, identifying new diseases and examining new methods of disease control, said growers “don’t like to see new diseases come out of our work. The main concern, downey mildew, continues to be challenging for both lettuce and spinach growers.”

“We started in the early spring with heavy mildew on both lettuce and spinach crops,” explained Koike, “and it’s remained pretty heavy on lettuce throughout the spring and early summer here. Spinach downey mildew goes up and down, which is not unusual.” he said. “We had some heavy mildew weeks for spinach growers, then we didn’t hear anything, then we heard that it had died down, and then ten days ago there was another surge. It’s one of those things that is hard to predict because it is variable.”

Since starting his farm advising position in 1989, Koike has been involved in educational programs and applied research in vegetable, fruit and ornamental crop diseases. Because downey mildew can overwinter in perennial crops, its continued occurrence is not too surprising.

“Earlier this year, Jim Correll, my cooperator at University of Arkansas, other leaders in the industry and I finally did confirm race 16, a new biotype of downey mildew. A few years ago, it was only race 12; it is moving target,” he noted.

“Although we have confirmed Race 16 on spinach, we are a little concerned because there are reports of disease on some race 16-resistant varieties.” Koike said.

Featured image: Downey Mildew (Source: UCANR Cooperative Extension, Tehama County)

Palo Verde Valley Prepares for Fall Crops

Dr. Vonny Barlow, a UC Cooperative Extension Entomology Farm Advisor in Blythe located in Imperial County, reports the Palo Verde Valley has a lot of activity this time of year.

“Currently we’re transitioning out of the summer crops; temperatures are getting cooler; we’re no longer in the 114° to 116° F zone; and nighttime temperatures are dropping. So we are transitioning to our late fall/winter crops, which is predominantly lettuce in the Palo Verde Valley,” said Barlow.

“A lot of those growers out there are pre-irrigating their fields now to increase soil friability—to break it up so that when they come in and mulch the soil, they can create fine soil and soil particles—because lettuce seed needs good soil contact for it to imbibe water and germinate,” said Barlow.

“The Palo Verde Valley is unique in the desert in that it is a highly productive agricultural region. It’s the second largest alfalfa production in that area outside the San Joaquin Valley, and it actually has greater production than the inner-mountain areas in Northern California. We have plentiful sunshine, good soil types, easily-drained soils, and available water for irrigation, so that’s the trifecta for agriculture,” said Barlow.

Specialty Crop School Scheduled in Salinas Oct. 7-9

Salinas Valley Short-Course to Focus on Business and Regulatory Drivers for Coastal Crops

The October 7-9  Specialty Crop School features California’s Salinas Valley where lettuce, cole crops, strawberries and wine grapes reign.

This intensive 3-day course has been specifically designed for suppliers to specialty crop businesses who require an in-depth understanding of key drivers impacting Salinas Valley growers and their purchasing and management decisions. The year-round production cycle of the Salinas Valley sends fresh leafy greens, vegetables and other cool season crops to markets around the world.

Participants will return to their organizations equipped with new information to refine their business strategies according to new food safety, pest management, traceability and water requirements as well as meeting retailer demands.

The Salinas Valley School, headquartered in Watsonville, will include field visits to farms, processing facilities and research centers as well as discussions with growers, pest management experts, agronomists, regulators and university scientists. Field stops are planned in lettuce, cole crops, artichokes, strawberries, seed production and winegrapes.

Featured speakers include Bonnie Fernandez from the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis; Richard Smith, Monterey County Cooperative Extension; Becky Sisco from the IR-4 Minor Use Registration Program; Richard Spas, CA Department of Pesticide Regulation and representatives from several local farming companies.

Early-bird rates are available until September 10 and registration closes on October 1. Class size is limited and seats are available on a first come, first served basis.

For complete Specialty Crop School course topics and registration information, go to www.specialtycropschool.com