Uncertainty is lay of the land
Imperial Valley growers bracing for spinach market fallout
By Diane Lindquist
September 28, 2006
HOLTVILLE – Far from the Northern California fields that produced the spinach that has sickened consumers across the United States, growers in the Imperial Valley and around Yuma, Ariz., are struggling with some multimillion-dollar questions.
Should they plant the huge winter spinach crop? If they grow it, will anyone buy it?
NADIA BOROWSKI SCOTT / Union-Tribune
Jack Vessey (right), one of the largest growers of spinach in Imperial County, and his ranch foreman, Bartt Reis, looked out over a field that has been prepped and fertilized for winter spinach. Vessey said he hasn't decided whether to risk planting the crop.
They know they'll take a financial hit from the E. coli outbreak that has left at least 175 people ill in 25 states and one woman dead in Wisconsin.
The uncertainty growers face is whether the market will rebound now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has isolated the contamination to spinach from three Salinas Valley counties and declared that plants grown elsewhere are safe to eat.
Early this week, Jack Vessey, one of Imperial County's largest spinach growers, stood in a dusty field already prepped for spinach seeds and contemplated whether to put in the crop or cut his losses.
“We've never been in limbo like this. We knew what we were going to do two months ago, and now,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“To be honest, we just don't know what to do.”
by the numbers
$350 million: Value of total annual U.S. spinach crop (spring and winter)
40 percent: Percentage that is grown in the Imperial Valley and Yuma region
10,000: Number of acres in the region usually planted in winter spinach
2 dozen: Number of winter spinach growers in Imperial Valley and Yuma
SOURCE: USDA, California andArizona agriculture
Nearly all fresh spinach sold in the United States from November through March comes from the Imperial Valley and Yuma region. The winter crop accounts for 40 percent of the $350 million market. The remainder comes from the spring production around Salinas, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
“Spinach is one of our successes. It's been steady, one of our safe crops, if you will,” Vessey said, noting that he's grown the crop for 10 years. “We usually get through the season making money.”
Every few days during a typical production year, Vessey said, he plants seeds in 10-acre plots so restaurants and supermarkets will be provided with a continuous spinach supply throughout the winter.
Vessey's business, Vessey & Co., which he runs with his father, Jon, reached agreements months ago with marketers, a few as investment partners, to provide specific amounts of the vegetable at specific times in upcoming months.
If the market fails to materialize as originally planned, both grower and marketer will suffer the hit, he said.
Vessey has already spent money on seed, insecticide, fertilizer and workers to ready the fields. He is reluctant to invest more if no one will buy the product. If Vessey halts production now, he said, his loss would amount to about a half-million dollars.
NADIA BOROWSKI SCOTT / Union-Tribune
Imperial Valley and Yuma growers said much is riding on whether consumers can differentiate between their spinach and crops from the Salinas Valley, which the FDA has identified as the source of the E. coli outbreak.
“In this business, it's said your first loss is your cheapest loss,” he said.
The E. coli outbreak is certain to spread financial damage all along the supply chain, Vessey said, from field workers to agricultural service suppliers to marketers, distributors and stores and restaurants.
Nobody yet knows how widespread the losses will be.
“The effects are a lot greater than the public thinks,” Vessey said.
He said he will decide whether to plant by Oct. 10.
“We want to be sure we're going to be able to harvest,” he said.
Switching to another of the 20-some crops Vessey & Co. grows is unlikely because plans for those products already are set. If Vessey leaves the spinach acreage barren, he might be able to plant later if sales pick up.
“But for us to react, it would be a minimum of 30 days to plant it and put it on the market,” Vessey said.
Across the Arizona border in Yuma County, grower Steve Alameda said he's cutting back his spinach acreage even though shippers and marketers are urging him to plant.
“When in doubt, don't do it. That's what people usually do,” Alameda said. “It's really a mess. It's really sad.”
About two dozen farmers in Imperial and the Yuma area raise spinach, according to county and state agricultural officials. Most also grow other vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and peppers. Slightly less than 10,000 acres are devoted to spinach in the two regions. Nearly all the spinach produced is bagged.
Losses are most likely to be minimized, the region's growers said, if American consumers can make the distinction between spinach from the Salinas Valley, which included the tainted product, and spinach grown hundreds of miles away in the Imperial and Yuma desert areas.
“Of course they are suffering, and we don't blame them,” Vessey said. “But we are not implicated in this nor have we been implicated in any outbreak in the past.”
“We'd hope there's a different perception about spinach grown in the desert,” said Vessey's ranch foreman, Bartt Reis.
Vessey and Reis ticked off a list of the safety precautions they take to prevent contamination, including frequent tests of irrigation water, daily power washes of the harvesting machines and use of independent firms to certify stricter safety measures than those required by law.
Such practices are routine throughout the industry, however, and it's probable they failed to prevent E. coli from tainting the Salinas Valley spinach, experts say.
Spinach returns: East Coast grocery chains Giant Food, Stop & Shop and Tops Markets began restocking produce shelves yesterday with fresh spinach grown in Colorado and Canada.
Safe to eat: Federal officials continued to reassure the public that spinach was safe to eat as long as it was grown outside the Salinas Valley.
Positive test: A third bag of Dole baby spinach in Pennsylvania that tested positive for a deadly E. coli strain has been linked to a specific batch packaged at a Salinas Valley plant.
E. coli is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is spread through fecal contamination. There are various strains, and not all are dangerous to humans.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli O157:H7, the strain identified as the cause of the illness outbreak, is responsible for about 73,000 infections and 61 deaths annually in the United States.
In hopes of informing consumers that the winter spinach is safe, Imperial Valley and Yuma growers are working closely with industry associations.
Suggestions include putting stickers on bagged spinach identifying where the product is grown and posting signs in supermarkets, said Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association.
No formal plan has been devised, however, because the business groups are focusing on how the Salinas Valley spinach became tainted.
“First is taking care of the current crisis,” said Western Growers Association spokesman Tim Chelling.
Given the uncertainty and confusion in the industry, it's unlikely consumers will start buying the vegetable again in sizable quantities anytime soon, Yuma grower Gary Pasquinelli predicted.
“When something like that happens, people stop eating spinach. Period,” he said.
For his part, Vessey foresees a difficult season. The loss of reputation the entire industry has suffered might not be reversed until the source of the contamination has been identified. And some food experts are saying the cause might never be known.
“A lot of these ranches had top-notch food safety practices, and we need to know what happened because we might need to make adjustments,“ Vessey said.
“I don't want anybody to get sick. I don't want anybody to die. We want to give people safe food.”