Thursday, December 09, 2010

Lettuce Entertain You

Location: Yuma, AZ

Every day at the Mexican border, buses pick up scores workers with temporary agricultural visas who have just walked across the checkpoint from Mexico into Arizona. The re-purposed school busses, pulling port-a-potties and hand-sanitizer wash stations, deliver the workers to one of the many lettuce fields in and around Yuma.

And then the day begins, a day that is just like yesterday was and just like tomorrow will be. It is another day of picking lettuce, and for most workers that means picking an astonishing 3000 heads before they head for home.

Yuma is the lettuce capital of the country from November through April (Salinas, CA, claims the honor in the summer). Crops are ready for harvest every 6 weeks or so, and fields are replanted as soon as the previous crop is gone.

Some interesting lettuce facts:

  • There are 70 varieties of iceberg lettuce alone.
  • Iceberg lettuce costs about $2,200 per acre to grow and should produce 700 to 800 cartons to the acre.
  • Picked head lettuce, if kept cool, will last 30 days. That is NOT in your refrigerator -- factor in the time it takes for it to get to you, and you are left with about 10 days of fridge time before the science experiments take over.
  • The Yuma lettuce fields are irrigated by water from the Colorado River. The irrigation pipes are moved from field-to-field as the season progresses. The cost to the farmer for water is $15 per acre/foot.
  • During the winter season, 12 million heads of lettuce are harvested in Yuma each day.

As John and I were driving around the country outside of Yuma, we spotted a group of lettuce pickers that were near enough to the road for us to stop and watch for a while. What we saw was an orchestrated symphony of picking virtuosity.

And it was obviously hard, back-breaking work.

An all-in-one, motorized trailer-esque vehicle slowly moves through the fields, at a stroller's pace (in the photo above, the entire assemblage is moving to the left). The front of the vehicle has filled pallets and boxes waiting to be filled. The rear is the picker's tossing station. And in between the two, workers box the lettuce, stacking the boxes into crates, and then the crates into pallets. The pallets are eventually transferred to trucks for distribution throughout the country.

It is the pickers that draw your eye. The pickers walk either behind or along side the trailer and drop the lettuce into buckets, then other workers put it on conveyors or pack it into boxes.

The pickers move quickly -- so quickly that it takes a while before you realize all that they are doing: bend down, decapitate a head of lettuce with a 12-inch knife, straighten up, hack off excess leaves with a couple practiced swings of the knife, bag the lettuce into the top-most piece of plastic wrap from a stack hanging from their waist, give it a twist and tie off the bag. A few seconds have now passed. They do another. And another. And another.

If they are working ahead of the end of the trailer, they drop the bagged head on the ground to be picked up by another worker as the wagon passes. Otherwise, it is delivered into the packing system in back. The pickers never stop. Pick, stand, hack, bag. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

We were mesmerized watching the operation in this field, and there were at least 3 other operations like this going on just in this one field. As we watched, one of the pickers waved John over, using hand gestures to offer us a head of lettuce. When he returned, John was juggling five.

A journalist named Gabriel Thompson has recently published a book, now on my "must read" list, entitled "Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do." A section of this book covers his 2-month stint as a lettuce picker here in Yuma. He found picking lettuce is not merely back-breaking work, but also takes years to build the proficiency needed to keep pace with the trailer. Years of pick, cut, wrap, pick, cut, wrap -- hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

Lettuce doesn't get any fresher than our unexpected bounty. I have never thought of lettuce as having an identifiable smell, but it does -- field fresh lettuce has a subtle earthy smell, pleasant and herby, clean and crisp.

We had salad tonight, and the lettuce was the best I have ever had. And all through dinner I thought about what it took to get all the heads of lettuce I have eaten in my life to my table. Our heartfelt thanks go to "our" pickers-- we enjoyed your gift more than you will know.

Gabriel Thomson said, "I don't eat lettuce in any form without thinking that someone bent down, cut it and wrapped it - and did that thousands of times a day."

And we will always remember that, too.


Roadrunner said...

A wonderful blog! Thanks, great pictures too. Never thought of Lettuce like that.

Sharon Del Rosario said...

Wow! 70 varieties of Iceberg lettuce? And just think about how many other kinds of lettuce there are... And now I know I've never had it really fresh. Thanks for an education on lettuce!

Marcy said...

This is a awesome post that gives people a real inside look to see what it really is like picking lettuce! I live in Yuma and see this everyday!


Very interesting,
have passed by them but never close enough or long enough to get a sense of what was happening.

Thanks for the book tip.