Go to the source to see the salad bar being harvested

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST - Alpenglow at dawn
  • Photo by Allen Best
  • Alpenglow at dawn

Your broccoli, lettuce, and cauliflower during winter probably came from Yuma, Ariz. Red beets, arugula or turnips, too. That giant vegetable garden in the Sonoran Desert provides 80 to 90 per cent of all the produce found in grocery stores of Canada and the United States.

It's not a place particularly hospitable after April. Average daily highs in July hit 42 C, and nights cool to an average 28 degrees. Winter is better, as attested by all the license plates from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in the parking lot of our motel. Jackets are optional, but shirt sleeves are not. March has a high of 27 C and lows of 12 degrees.

I've been to Yuma twice. It's five hours south along the Colorado River from Las Vegas. Just before Christmas, you can rent a car very cheaply in Vegas. It's about the same distance from Phoenix, but a little closer to San Diego.

Whatever way you get there, here's what you'll see: In every direction a giant salad bar, vast fields of vegetables being planted, weeded and harvested by teams of 30, most of them having passed across the border that morning from Mexico.

There's some mechanization involved, but mostly the success depends upon the many busy, repetitive hands. Of special note were the harvesting crews. The front line consisted of people standing and stooping, slicing off the heads of cabbage or stalks of broccoli. Others behind them moved the produce along a portable assembly line. By the time the veggies got onto an accompanying platform pulled by a John Deere or New Holland tractor, they had been boxed and, in some cases, sealed in plastic. They could be on a truck that afternoon and in Labrador three or four days later.

I'm not afraid of work. I stood for hours transfixed by this slow-moving parade of fast hands. We vowed to return to further explore this vast vegetable. We did so in February.

To grow vegetables requires sunshine, water and rich soil. Yuma, a city of 91,000 people, ranks at the very top of U.S. cities for its sunshine, 90 per cent of the time, compared to 73 per cent for Los Angeles and 43 per cent for Seattle, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Colorado River is responsible for not only the rich soil created over the eons, but also the contemporary water. The river originates in ski country, its main stem beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park but with key tributaries at Winter Park, Vail and Aspen, along with Crested Butte, Telluride and Durango. Its largest tributary, the Green River, starts as a trickle in Wyoming just south of Jackson Hole. Colorado altogether provides about 70 per cent of the river's water, in the form of snow that falls most heavily on mountain slopes between 2,740 and 3,350 metres in elevation. That's also the money belt for ski areas.

It's a big river like the Fraser or the Columbia, and it gets robbed regularly as it makes its way toward the Pacific Ocean. Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City all get water from this river. So do Phoenix and Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Dammed and diverted, the Colorado is docile when it reaches the Sonoran Desert. Here, it is diverted twice more, first at Imperial Dam and then, just inside Mexico, at Morelos Dam. Yuma gets its water from the river, too.

"Hmmm, tastes like Vail," I told my companion, Cathy, one evening over dinner. She replied: "I detect the fragrance of Aspen."

"Mine's better," I told her.

"Never heard of Vail," she played along.

One day, we learned about the story of the farms through the more informed agenda of a Fields-to-Fest tour. The most remarkable moment on the tour was when we were led to a plot of ground planted precisely for those on tours. But to set foot among the green beans and carrots we had to get dressed up: hair nets and, for those of us with facial hair, gauze to prevent our whiskers from contaminating the food in any way. At noon, there was a feast made from all this.

Beyond vegetables, Yuma has many bike trails, museums and other leisure activities for those who are "boomers and beyond," to borrow a Yuma advertising tagline. There's always the mystery of the border, down Mexico way, and what lies beyond. And did I say that there's no snow at Yuma. Ever. Sunshine, yes, it has plenty of that.


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