Farmers struggle to gauge spinach demand

/ Source: The Associated Press

Spinach grower Jack Vessey sees dollar signs as the little green leaves of his winter crop sprout from the rich, desert soil of the Imperial Valley.

But this year, he may struggle to break even if consumers remain wary about eating spinach after an E. coli outbreak killed three people and sickened nearly 200 others nationwide.

The contamination was traced to the Salinas Valley — more than 400 miles to the north of Vessey's fields. Even so, it threatens his bottom line as uncertain demand wreaks havoc with his growing schedule.

"Right now, we know what we're going to do for the next two weeks. After that? It's up in the air," said Vessey, 31, a fourth-generation farmer.

Spinach is big business in the Imperial Valley and Yuma, Ariz. The areas along the U.S.-Mexico border account for nearly all the winter spinach grown in this country.

The Imperial Valley produced more than 30.5 million pounds of the vegetable in 2005 with a gross value of $19.8 million _ an increase of nearly $5.2 million over the previous year, according to the county crop report.

Farmers in the region believe their spinach is safe because the flat ground and dry weather in the desert keep runoff problems from spreading dangerous bacteria.

Still, lagging consumer confidence has left them wondering how much to plant during the season that runs from October to February.

"They are being cautious because they don't know what to expect as far as the market is concerned," said Nicole Rothfleisch, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau.

"People had to take a long look at planting at all," added Aryon Schoneman, executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.

The total number of acres in production won't be known until the end of the season. Most farmers put some plants in the ground, and the crop could increase over the next few months if the market rebounds.

Vessey & Co. Inc., the largest of about 10 growers in the valley, has cut spinach production in half from this time last year.

"If I have ground that we don't plant spinach on, we're going to go in and plant wheat and lose $200 an acre," Vessey said.

He also grows broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other vegetables but doesn't plan to eliminate spinach from his farm.

"I believe in the practices we use here. We've never had a problem, and we will never have a problem," he said. "We don't want to see anybody get sick.