Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Salad Bowl of the Desert

We live in North Dakota.  A vast land of opportunity, and blizzards (hopefully no more for this year)!  Farming is still the most common job in North Dakota for 2014 even though we are not able to produce crops outside in the field for half the year.

If you live the Midwest (or anywhere else it snows), have you ever wondered where the fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores are coming from throughout those long winter months?  I had always assumed much of it was imported, but learned this winter that is not necessarily the case.

This January, Travis and I had the opportunity to travel to San Diego with the North Dakota Farm Bureau.  We were there as representatives for NDFB's Young Farmers & Ranchers committee.

While in California, we jumped at the chance to travel to the Imperial Valley with a tour organized by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

I have briefly mentioned this before, but Travis received his college degree in architecture, not agriculture.  His first job upon graduation was in Palm Desert, California, which is about a 2 hour drive north of the Imperial Valley (depending on your exact destination).

While the desert is a beautiful place to visit during the winter months, the summer feels like a hot hair dryer is blowing in your face all day.  Of the four times I visited Travis while he was living there (as I was still in college), August was about the worst time possible with highs reaching 120 degrees F.  I'm sweating just thinking about it.

Needless to say, I was pretty blunt to Travis that I was never moving to there.  I'm more accustomed to freak temperatures below zero with wind chill than the scorching desert.  I guess I'm in the right place now!

However, I like to eat produce during the winter too.  And it needs to come from somewhere!  Guess where that is? 


For our tour of "The Salad Bowl of the Desert," we traveled to the Imperial Valley from San Diego.  To get there we crossed mountains, which in itself is a delight to see since we live near one of the flattest places on earth - the Red River Valley in North Dakota.

The horizontal line in the mountain is the old highway.

From there we eventually traveled down into the Imperial Valley.  It is a desert that is fed via irrigation from the Colorado River as the water travels from the mountains in the Upper Colorado Basin, south to the Hoover Dam and through a few other dams along the way to the All American Canal in the Lower Colorado Basin.

A canal in the Imperial Valley.

Water is diverted to the All American Canal, where it travels to a series of other smaller canals throughout the Imperial Valley, and redirected using gates to various fields - more than 3,000 miles of canals and drains.  The gates are not mechanized - it is a person's job to open them by hand.

A series of gates allowing water to travel to different fields in the Imperial Valley.

All of this is managed by the Imperial Irrigation District via orders placed for water by the farmers.  The farmers in the Imperial Valley have rights to the water, and pay for the services provided, but not for the water itself.  Crops are fed water via sprinklers or flood irrigation.

Sprinklers irrigating a field in the Imperial Valley.

Flood irrigated field in the Imperial Valley.

The growing season takes place a year round, but some crops cannot tolerate the heat of the summer (much like myself).  Some of the crops that we saw were the following:

Hay - Alfalfa, Bermudagrass, and Sudangrass.  It is put in shipping containers and sent over to China!

Bales of hay ready and waiting - no need for coverage as it doesn't rain!

Salad Greens - Romaine, spring mix, spinach.  You name it, they grow it.

Leafy greens on the left, red on the right.

Herbs - Many types grown in both organic and conventional methods.

Timing is of the essence in getting the cut produce out of the heat.

Although this is a very brief overview of the tour and the agriculture of the Imperial Valley, hopefully it gives you some insight into the crop diversity of California.  Farmers and ranchers within the valley alone produce everything from cattle & sheep to field crops, vegetables & melons, fruits & nuts, seed & nursery crops, and apiary products.

Our tour guide mentioned that the Imperial Valley produces 90% of the vegetables for the United States during the winter months.  That is a lot of veggies!  You can learn more agricultural facts of this area through the Imperial County Farm Bureau's website.

This experience was extremely eye-opening for us as farmers from eastern North Dakota.  We live in a place where typically water is not always viewed so fondly, particularly this time of year when flooding is imminent.  We learned where our food comes from and how it is grown, including the meticulous food safety practices that are taken to ensure that our food is safe to consume.

We'd like to thank Vessey for the hospitality during the farm tour.  We encourage anyone, farmer or not, to take the chance to visit a farm or ranch if given the opportunity!

Having my salad and eating it too,

P.S. This week, March 8-14th, is North Dakota Farm Bureau week.  I'll be writing everyday highlighting some of the ways Travis and I are involved with the organization. You can read Monday's post here, and yesterday's post here.

Disclaimer: As farmers, we are members of the North Dakota Farm Bureau and volunteer our time to the organization.  Due to our leadership position on the Young Farmers & Ranchers committee, we were reimbursed for our travel expenses on this trip, and are grateful for the opportunity.  However, we paid for this farm tour out of our own pocket - worth every penny.

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