Amid the harsh desert of Yuma County were 180,000 acres of lush fields and orchards: North America’s winter produce section. Yuma was once a massive flood plain for the Colorado and Gila rivers, and the soils that were deposited on the plain by flooding over the eons are rich in nutrients and thus ideal for growing.
Meanwhile, there is the sun.
Agricultural activity, in the fields if not the orchards, was at a minimum when we arrived in Yuma in the dead of summer. Planting on a grand scale commenced in September. On fields level as pool tables, there was machine-sculpted ridge after perfect ridge of finely-granulated soils irrigated by sprinklers spewing Colorado River water; other fields were flood irrigated. Soon these acreages were bright green with lettuce and dull-green with cauliflower. Meanwhile, wagons piled high with colorful lemons and limes trundled along Yuma’s streets and avenues, their occasionally spilled fruits ornamenting the roadsides.
Field harvesting in Yuma was serious business likely performed entirely by Latinos, many of them temporarily in Yuma from their homes in Mexico, 20 miles to the south. Repainted former school buses packed with field workers scurried over the state and interstate highways and county roads from pre-dawn to post-dusk.
My culinary preference pointed me particularly to the Romaine lettuce harvest. A harvesting machine―basically a wheeled, self-propelled, slowly-moving workbench that extended over a dozen rows or so―combed over the fields as the lechugeros―“lettuce people”―cut and boxed heads of Romaine, then delivered the boxes by conveyor belt to a shadowing tractor-drawn wagon. Lechugeros in Yuma County numbered as many as 40 thousand between the months of October and March.
When the harvest was completed, the lettuce field always contained not only a pallid mess of dead leaves, but thousands of still rooted and, it seemed to me, perfectly good heads. As a salad lover, I’d look at these remnants; long for a plate, fork, and a bottle of Newman’s Own Caesar; and, mouth watering, nearly weep at the puzzling waste. (And a waste that didn’t end there: Americans, myself included, throw out 60 million tons of produce annually.)
For final processing and shipping, the harvested vegetables were transported to a massive complex on Yuma’s east side. Empty and dark during the summer months, in the winter it operated non-stop, a dynamo that lit the night sky as it swarmed with 18-wheelers, their trailers refrigerated.
Legendary farmworker organizer and pacifist Cesar Chavez was born in Yuma. And yet nowhere in the city was there a monument to him, a designation of his childhood home or neighborhood, or a street bearing his name. Understandable? Thinly so, perhaps: Chavez’s fame rested on his considerable organizing successes in California; his efforts to do the same in Arizona were far less fruitful. However, in nearby San Luis, Arizona, where Chavez died, I did come upon a handsome, larger-than-life bronze statue of him at a community center bearing his name and a big, beautiful portrait of him within the center. And in Yuma County, as in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico and the San Luis Valley of Colorado, I regularly saw two examples of his legacy: Every field under harvest was equipped with tidy portable toilets (no more searching for a tree or ditch) and shiny hand-washing stations (although, of course, agribusiness today does have a serious stake in strict hygiene).