According to the USDA’s most recent assessment, acreage for fall vegetable crops in the California desert remained relatively unchanged from 2007.

Fall harvested broccoli was forecast at 28,000 acres — similar to 2007. There was a slight drop in the estimated acreage for fall head lettuce and cauliflower. Growers were expected to harvest 30,000 acres of fall head lettuce, representing a nearly 10 percent decline from 2007. Cauliflower acreage was about 7,900 acres, down 5 percent.

Fall cantaloupe acreage for Arizona and California was down slightly to an estimated 12,100 acres, while honeydew acreage was up overall to about 3,500 acres.

Those crops were in the middle or tail end of their harvest going into the Thanksgiving holiday. Shields says the first head lettuce field to harvest in the Imperial Valley was around Dec. 1, right on schedule.

The changing crop landscape and tenuous water situation are bringing significant changes to the Imperial Valley, he notes. With regional water districts looking at the potential for water rationing in light of diminishing supplies and agricultural allocations for surface water, there has been a significant change in irrigation practices in desert vegetables.

“There is probably at least twice as much irrigation with drip this year,” he said. “Talk about water rationing in 2009 has got everybody scared. Produce guys don’t want to get caught 10 days from harvest without enough water to finish their crop. A lot of them haven’t done drip before, but there’s a feeling of desperation.”

As a result, some growers are leaving selected fields out of production, switching to drought-tolerant crops or installing low-volume irrigation that allows them to reduce and control their water use.