Just back from the Field to Feast Yuma excursion, and because this farm tour in Arizona was so enjoyable, I can’t stop talking about it.
Jampacked Field to Feast Tour
The Field to Feast tour was jampacked with
- hands-on vegetable harvesting in a real working field,
- behind the scenes ride into the fields for a peek at pickers and machinery and
- farming lessons under sunny skies.
The half-day tour culminated in a chef-prepared feast.
I learned a lot about how all the acres of Yuma produce gets from farm to fork. Did you know that over 90% of all leafy vegetables consumed in the US and Canada during the winter come from Yuma, Arizona? Me either!
The folks at Visit Yuma have put together these well-organized expeditions that change from tour to tour, depending on which local farmer accompanies you to their family farm. And what happens to be growing there at the time. Read on to discover why this has become one of my favorite farm tours in Arizona.
Enthusiastic Foodies and Farmers at 'Field to Feast Tour'
I met the Field to Feast tour group at the Visit Yuma Visitor Information Center and was surprised to see that the troupe of enthusiastic foodies and farmers filled a bright, new shiny coach bus. It turns out that many of my fellow travelers were farmers from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Washington.
These “snowbirds” live in sunshiny Yuma during the winter months and return home like migratory birds. With 310 days of sunshine per year, Yuma is a perfect place to escape the cold … and to grow winter vegetables.
Yuma's Agricultural Scene has Deep Roots
Our first stop was the University of Arizona – Yuma research farm, where horticulture experts stepped onto the bus to prepare us for picking in the field. They also filled us in about the local agricultural scene, which has deep roots in Yuma.
“We’re at the beginning of the season, so I don’t know what our disaster will be this year. One year we’ve had flocks of blackbirds, diamondbacks in another. It’s always something; that’s how it is with farming or gardening,” explained Janine Lane, Master Gardener Program Coordinator at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. She revealed that the most trouble with birds is during drought years. Therefore, we might see some young people walking the field with noise cannons. Plans are to put in a hawk stand to attract raptors that would help mitigate the crop-damaging birds.
Not many tour guides hand you a knife
“When you harvest the Brussels sprouts don’t take the stem, but rather pluck off the sprouts,” she warned. There’s not many tour guides who hand you a knife and then ask you to pluck off a head … of cabbage or Brussels sprouts.
Food safety is part of Yuma’s culture
“Food safety is part of our culture,” said John Boelts co-owner of Desert Premium Farms. “The crops we grow here are heavily distributed across the U.S. and Canada. There are different [food safety] standards in different countries. With 50-60 growers in the Yuma area, we are at the leading edge of food safety. We go beyond government regulations in the US.” I looked around to see participants listening intently on this farm tour in Arizona.
Field to Feast Tour Exposed: 'Where We Grow Our Food, Animals Grow'
Before the Field to Feast tour, I hadn’t thought about animal feces spoiling crops. But of course, where we grow our food, animals grow. We met Dr. Paula Rivadeneira, the only Food Safety and Wildlife Extension Specialist in the United States, and she opened my eyes. Her area of expertise is in pre-harvest food safety and developing environmentally-friendly ways to deter animals, including rodents, reptiles and birds from agricultural fields.
@PaulaThePoopDoctor is her Twitter handle. “Deer, javelina and coyotes poop in there,” she said sweeping her hand towards the lush green fields. “We could lose an acre because some animal pooped in the field.”
Produce within a five-foot diameter of the feces must be fenced off. “We could lose a whole field from just one flock of birds pooping,” she said. She tests soil and food for E. coli and salmonella.
Silly me, I thought this food safety talk was about my safety
“In this food safety culture, workers are poop detectives. They have their eyes on the ground,” detailed @PaulaThePoopDoctor. Silly me, I thought this food safety talk was about my safety: how to hold the knife blade away from me or some such thing. Instead, we’re talking about poop. In so doing, it’s much more interesting than ‘how to put on a hairnet.’
Instead, I donned my hairnet sans instructions. After washing my hands at the field-side washing station, of course. (Check out my hairnet in the photo above.) I took two bags – one to fill with vegetables for the local Crossroads Mission and one for leafy produce to bring home to my family. Brandishing my lettuce knife, I headed out into the fields of the Arizona low desert.
Field to Feast Yuma: University of Arizona research farm
One of the fields at the University of Arizona research farm is prepared, planted, and signed just for these Field to Feast Yuma tours. The crops highlight Yuma’s produce that is sent out nationwide and to Canada and the UK.
Vegetables, planted at the beginning of October and then every two weeks after that, so there’s always something for you to harvest. Master gardeners and other horticulture experts are on hand to assist and answer your questions during this farm tour in Arizona. I was happy for that because I wasn’t exactly sure where on the stem to cut Bok Choy.
Seeing Agriculture in Action
We reboarded the bus and headed to Desert Premium Farms to experience agriculture in action. Farmer John Boelts took the microphone and shared about agriculture ‘then and now’ as we made our way to his fields.
“The yield per field is 30% higher with 30% less water than 30 years ago,” said the fourth-generation farmer who served two terms as Yuma County Farm Bureau President. “That’s harvested romaine across the street, and to the right romaine. And iceberg to the left,” he pointed out the coach window without skipping a beat in his informal presentation.
“We’re using science to do things better. As for the climate, there is no other place in the US quite like this especially for winter vegetables,” he said. “In this area, much is hand-harvested: dates, citrus, leafy produce. These crops need 22-250 people per day [for harvesting.] First, and second-generation Americans do the work. Typical workers earn $15 to $30 per hour.
Workers lined up … but not in this country
“People are lined up for those jobs for doing piece work. Unfortunately, they’re not in this country,” Boeltz said. He explained that the Mexican labor force is geographically convenient – the border crossing at Los Algodones is only ten miles away, but multiple federal agencies ( five, he says) make it difficult to get visas for farmworkers.
Revealed: Artificial Undersupply of Workers
“There is an artificial undersupply of workers [because of federal regulations,]” revealed the farmer. According to Boeltz, the H-2A visa program that allows employers to bring foreign nationals to the US limits the visa to nine months per job per one crop. That means that if he brings a worker in to pick Romaine lettuce in January, that person cannot work when the fields are replanted for the summer crop of Durham wheat, nor the fall melon crop. “It’s kind of a mess to deal with but it’s all we’ve got,” he said.
“15,000 people cross daily from San Luis. They’re lined up at 4 a.m. to go through the narrow checkpoint lane. The port is very busy.” That makes it difficult for his workers, too.
“The Yuma area, as a whole, is pretty unique. It has good soil but not great soil. It lacks something because of the intense heat.” Yuma’s low desert is also unique because most deserts don’t have the water of the Colorado River flowing through it.
Hand-harvesting Lettuce with Mechanized Wash and Wrap
As we left the farm, we saw pickers hand-harvesting lettuce. I couldn’t tell if it were the same sort of knife that I had used to pick lettuce earlier. I could tell that they were much more efficient with the tool than I was.
The farming equipment that flanked the workers moved along at their speed. “The machine conveys the lettuce through the white tank,” explained Boeltz. “The tank is filled with 20% chlorinated water. It gives the lettuce a slight chlorine bath to deal with where the blade of the knife cut the plant. Then the iceberg lettuce is wrapped in plastic.”
Next stop on this Farm Tour in Arizona: Inside Arizona Western College
Our next stop was Arizona Western College to meet Yuma’s next generation of farmers. Francisco Aguilar, a student at the public community college, showed off his favorite projects both indoors and out. In this hands-on learning setting, he gets a 12-foot plot, which he hand-plants with six varieties. He learns agriculture from seed to harvest, said one of his supervisors.
Putting the ‘Feast’ into Yuma's 'Field to Feast' tours
In the meantime, the Culinary Arts student club at Arizona Western College prepared Yuma’s fresh veggies into a delicious and healthy lunch. Under the direction of Robert Gideon, the professor of culinary arts, they laid out a feast fit for a king and queen. The farm feast laid out on a long buffet table included
- Sliced Kohlrabi with Yellow Peppers
- Beet greens with Spinach,
- Field greens, Beets and Feta Cheese,
- Pickled Carrot with Jalapeno,
- Coleslaw with an Asian flair,
- Caesar with fresh Romaine, and
- Broccoli Salad, and
- Cream of Broccoli Soup
- Keto Cabbage Vegetable Soup.
We left with full bellies and new appreciation of farm to fork food. I highly recommend this experience. It is so popular that you must make reservations.
Later that evening, I enjoyed the Sunset on the Ranch Dinner, where I got excellent photos. Stay in touch with UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel by subscribing below, so you don’t miss the upcoming story.
When You Go:
The Field to Feast tour departs promptly from the Yuma Visitor Information Center at 8 a.m. and returns to the same location at approximately 1:30 p.m.
Tour Dates: January 9, 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30; February 1, 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20; March 4
Price: $55 per person
As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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