Growing vegetables in the desert

By: Kelly Sheridan, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student. 

Did you know that 90% of leafy greens (i.e., lettuce, kale, spinach, etc.) produced/consumed during winter in the US and Canada are grown in Yuma, Arizona[1]? That means the odds that you have consumed lettuce from Desert Premium Farms are very high!

During our weeklong immersive farm trip to Arizona in early December 2022, our cohort had the opportunity to meet John Boelts, co-owner of Desert Premium Farms, LLC. John, his wife, Alicia, and their business partners, Kent and Jenny Inglett, farm more than 2000 acres year-round in Yuma. John has been in the farming business for over two decades.

As John described, Yuma has “the best” climate to farm year-round which allows farmers to diversify their operations by planting multiple crops. In addition to climate, John shared that, in his opinion, the four things that make farming possible and successful in Yuma are the people, the soil, and the water. During the winter months, Desert Premium grows a plethora of vegetables such as iceberg and romaine lettuce, and cauliflower. In the spring, they grow cantaloupe and other melons, while the rest of the year is focused on row crops, ranging from cotton to wheat to Sudan grass and alfalfa. In the peak planting and harvesting time of the year, they employ between 40 – 50 people to perform a wide range of work across the farm.

When it comes to growing winter vegetables, Desert Premium operates as a custom contract grower. As a contract grower, they enter into agreements with produce harvesting and marketing companies to produce a specified amount of a crop for the companies. Then, the farm is provided a guaranteed return based on the agreement terms and conditions. This also means that these companies provide the labor, otherwise known as packers, to do the harvesting and packing of the vegetables in the field. To ensure that they are able to provide the agreed upon vegetables during the winter months, Desert Premium typically conducts a staged planting beginning in September so that they have 18 – 21 weeks’ worth of harvest available. This also allows them to meet the expectations of the contacts to deliver their harvest on the exact date they are expecting it.

John was open with the group in discussing not only the successes they have as a large operation, but also the challenges they face on a yearly basis. Of all the things that farmers can control, including what seeds they use, the amount of inputs applied, and the amount of water used during irrigation, the one major factor that is out of their control is weather. Over the last year, they have faced extreme heat late in the season which caused cauliflower to stop growing and frost damage on lettuce. They can also face a range of pests and diseases on the crops. Unlike other commodities that have crop insurance to protect farmers and provide a safety net, specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables, have limited access to this insurance mechanism depending on which crop they are growing. Farmers must enter their planting season understanding the risks that come with the fruit and vegetable markets being dictated by the supply and demand of the marketplace.

While on the tour, I had the chance to ride along with John, where I learned all about his commitment to being an advocate for AZ agriculture. In addition to his full time job on the farm, John also serves as the Arizona Farm Bureau’s 1st Vice President and is a Chair of the five person Arizona Department of Agriculture Advisory Board. The advisory board is a “legislatively established, governor-appointed body that reviews agricultural policy and assists the department director in formulating administrative rules and the department's budget. By statute, two council members must be involved in the livestock industry, two members must be involved in the plant production industry, and one member must be involved in agribusiness[2].” John’s goal in serving in these capacities is to help keep food affordable, abundant, and safe, while working through the complexities of understanding what is best for Arizona agriculture.

We appreciate John and Desert Premium Farms for hosting our group at their operation and for helping us understand the complexities and uniqueness of growing crops in Yuma, Arizona.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.