Prices were not that good this summer in Salinas and the Central Coast, but the $6 billion agricultural marketplace continues to bustle with field preparation activity before the onset of winter rains.

There were market peaks during the season, but overall the talk was once again about low prices.

"It is hard to get excited about a $5 lettuce market when it cost $8.50 to grow and pack it," said one valley consultant.

The major packers and shippers are getting ready to move equipment and people to Yuma to begin the winter season there. Last year was one of the best ever for desert vegetables. Unfortunately, that did not carry over into Salinas.

However, low prices in Salinas do not sound as ominous as it would a decade ago before the era of the salad packs and contract vegetable production. Contract growing is increasing each year, guaranteeing farmers a profit for reasonably priced raw products for salad packs.

"There have been so-called good and bad years, but since 1988 things have gone pretty well here," said James Conn, sales manager for Quinn Co. in Salinas. "Growers buy more equipment one year to the next based on crop prices, but we are dealing with second and third generation producers here and they buy what they need when they need it. Growers here put a lot of hours on tractors.

"In the Midwest they may use a tractor 300 hours per year. Here they use tractors 2,500 to 3,000 hours per year and by then they need to be replaced," Conn said.

Quick turnaround

"We are seeing more 80-inch wide beds and minimum tillage using wider equipment. It is all a matter of a quick turnaround to get the next crop in," he said.

Sales continue for the rubber-track Caterpillar Challenger tractors. "We still have trouble getting enough," said Conn. "Right now our rental fleet is all out."

This year’s Salinas Valley Farm Show was another successful one for the Gonzales Young Farmers, which took over full management of the show two years ago. It was co-sponsored this year by Western Growers Association and Western Farm Press, the show’s official publication.

The crowd was a little sparse for this year’s event. The weather was clear and warm and land prep activities were under way and that may have kept some producers away.

"Overall, however, we were pleased with the show," said Don Ostini, Gonzales Young Farmer show chairman. "We have had good exhibitor and community support and are looking forward to next year."

The show is the only farm show serving California’s Central Coast from Watsonville to Oxnard.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com