2015 Farm Tour Report: Imperial & Coachella Valleys

Morgan with a fig tree laden with fruit

Morgan with a fig tree laden with fruit

by Morgan Dodge, Produce Manager

Grapes, melons, figs, peppers and eggplant – available in May? It is a privilege to have access to such symbols of summer in the Inland Northwest long before our region can produce these fruits and vegetables. To support out-of-season consumer demands like these, our food system operates with a very high level of efficiency, a spectacular entourage of agricultural tools, multiple generations of great minds, and a whole lot of very hard-working people. In order to better understand this food system and thereby better serve and support our customers, I was given the opportunity to visit some of the largest-producing organic farms in the Imperial and Coachella valley’s, where I had the chance to converse and network with the farmers, distributors and wholesalers that allow sweet cantaloupe and watermelon to be staples of your memorial day and independence day weekends.

Unforeseen environmental pressures are a constant for farmers. In 2015, lack of winter precipitation in the Sierra’s caused farms and municipalities who rely on the snowpack, to re-evaluate and limit all of their water use. However, the greater Palm Springs area was among the few regions that had water, due to the Coachella canal system. 160 miles of canals, full of diverted Colorado River water, line out this area, and are some the most sophisticated canal systems in the world. If the densely populated urban areas to the north need water, however, these farms will then join the majority of Californian agriculture forced to drastically reduce their water consumption. For now, these farms are prospering. The desert conditions allow this area to provide some of the first domestic Mediterranean fruits and vegetables of the year.

My group met up with Anthony Bianco of Anthony Vineyards. We visited part of his 2000-acre grape vineyard, as well as his packaging facilities, and then move on to the date palm orchards where we learned about the thinning, pollinating and harvesting done by their experts, called Palmeros. From there, we visited the farms supporting the Pasha and Mr. Grape labels. Pasha packs peppers and eggplant, and you can guess the crops harvested by Mr. Grape! Their umbrella company also grows multiple varieties of citrus. We then met up with Sutton Morgan, owner of Oasis Organics, who is another multi-generational farmer who grows melons, onions, potatoes and what California calls “winter crops” – broccoli, celery, cauliflower, carrots and other wet vegetables. We then visited storage sheds being utilized by multiple growers and witnessed hydro-cooling and air-cooling in action. For all of these growers, time is of the essence as they move produce from vine to cooler in the Coachella desert, where temperatures can climb well into the 100’s in the daytime.

Our final stop took us to Gless Ranch, where several varieties of fresh figs are grown. The beautiful trees were full of the commodity, but due to the fragility of this fruit, only 6,000 pounds of the 10,000 pounds picked in a day is sellable. The rest are discarded. Sad as it is, it is equally incredible that this fragile fruit can be grown and shipped on such a scale, and we can enjoy fresh California figs in June!

This experience for me was ultimately a reminder that our food is precious and should never be taken for granted. Humans have labored for thousands of years to master the art of agriculture in order to better support whole communities. Today’s food system allows us to enjoy, and even expect, many types of fruits and vegetables, year-round. While a local food system is ideal, these organic farms exist to support our summertime cravings, and work with integrity to bring us high quality products and give back to the environment.