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Harvest Is Only Half the Battle : To Reap Profits, Growers Must Cultivate Far-Flung Markets and Outwit Competition

60 ACRES OF HOPE. The First Year of a California Farm. One in an occasional series

March 06, 1994|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — The field bristles with contrasting shapes, sizes and colors. A broad oval here, a spiky nub there. A deep green, a silver sheen.

Rancher Jim Roberts staggered the planting of the field in eight-acre strips, so his workers have been picking the three types of lettuce, radishes and turnips steadily throughout the winter. So far, they've harvested about half of the 60 acres dubbed Conejo Ranch.

As always, the laborers have encountered a few weeds and bugs as they trudge through the endless bend and pick rhythm of the harvest.

But overall, the field's done all right. "We've sold most of the crop," he said. "That's what counts."

It's been nearly a year since a trio of ranchers bought the 60-acre patch for $420,000, taking out hefty bank loans and risking their other landholdings as collateral. They spent countless hours--and hundreds of thousands of dollars--preparing the long-abandoned acreage for planting.

Now, after months of sowing millions of seeds, the farmers are ready to reap the profits. But first they must harvest the blooming field and find markets for their gourmet greens.

Abandoned for more than a decade before Roberts and his partners reclaimed the swampy land for agriculture, Conejo Ranch has survived its first big test. But the partners at Underwood Ranches remain disappointed.

The culprit: this winter's confoundingly perfect weather.

Unscathed by October's wildfires, January's earthquake and February's mudslides, many ranches across Southern California have produced bumper crops.

The crackling freezes that usually grip the Imperial Valley have skipped eastward. The cold, wet weather that usually dampens the Salinas harvest has made way for mild, spring-like temperatures.

Extended growing seasons in both regions have meant more competition for Underwood Ranches.

"Usually, winter means bad weather. Winter means frost. Winter means rain, disrupted planting seasons, lettuce crops freezing on the stalks," sales director Minos Athanassiadis said. "Usually, winter tightens up the supply and lets us bring our prices above break-even."

Usually. But not this year.

The average price farmers receive for their gourmet salad--a tumble of baby lettuce and exotic greens--has dropped to less than $9 for a three-pound box this year. Normally, that box would sell for about $12. Four years ago, when horrendous weather devastated the competition, even salad of mediocre quality fetched $14 a box.

Ironically, the bad weather elsewhere in the country is causing as much consternation as the unyielding warmth in California.

Slick roads and sinking temperatures back East have nibbled steadily away at the demand for fresh produce, as consumers have cut back on trips to restaurants and supermarkets.

Despite the bulging supply and constricted demand, Underwood Ranches partners still earn 15% on their salad some months, when the capricious market breaks their way. But mostly, they've been watching net revenues dip further and further.

Still, harvest at Conejo Ranch continues.

*

On a recent sodden morning, Agustin Garcia drove a tractor through the muck to collect lettuce-laden crates and place empties in position for the next day's harvest.

The tractor's massive wheels wobbled drunkenly in the thick, grasping mud.

"It's hard, huh?" Garcia said, grinning. "But I have to work."

The field hands, mainly Mexican immigrants, start the morning at dawn, when their foreman receives the day's order by walkie-talkie.

Just a few years ago, however, at other Underwood Ranches operations, walkie-talkies seemed a frill.

As Underwood lurched toward large-scale production of baby lettuce in the late 1980s, the partners lacked critical technology. And they came up with some pretty wacky substitutes.

An old Speed Queen laundry machine hooked up to a lawn mower engine, for example, served as an industrial-sized spinner to dry salad greens.

Later, the farmers plugged in six industrial-size washers for spinning salad. But they never got around to disconnecting the coin boxes, so they had to keep a good supply of quarters on hand.

"We don't have the cash to compete with the big growers, so we have to outthink them, outwork them or come up with something new," Roberts said.

Now, of course, the salad preparation technology has become more sophisticated.

So sophisticated, in fact, that Underwood officials will not divulge many details about their cooling, drying and packing operations, lest the competition catch on to techniques they spent years developing.

The basics, though, they do explain.

Because leaves lose a day of shelf life for each hour they sit in the sun, workers immediately cool the harvest after it's brought from the field to the packing house in Camarillo.

Some greens get an icy 20-minute shower under a waterfall, known as a hydrocooler. Others sit, draped with a tarp, in front of a giant suction machine that whips cold air through the leaves.

"It's a race to get it cold as fast as you can," Roberts said.

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