A valuable tool is available for the lettuce industry in California’s Salinas Valley, the “Salad Bowl of the World” to help growers pencil out precise production costs to make more informed management decisions.

The tool is the result of a University of California, Davis (UC Davis) lettuce cost survey, one of several analyses the university’s Cooperative Extension (UCCE) generates on an ongoing basis on crops grown in the Golden State.

The 2009 lettuce cost survey results are based on information shared by growers in the production of iceberg, romaine heart, and organic leaf lettuce in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The survey asked detailed questions based on the costs of land preparation, plant and stand establishment, fertilization and soil amendments, irrigation, pest management, and harvest.

The detailed crop findings are available online at http://coststudies.ucdavis.edu.

“The purpose of the survey is to give growers a good cost-study analysis on lettuce production in the Salinas Valley,” said Richard Smith, UCCE vegetable crop farm advisor, in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties.

The survey on romaine heart and organic leaf lettuces was a university first. UC Davis’ Karen Klonsky, Richard De Moura, Laura Tourte, and Smith collaborated on the project.

“The vegetable industry should not take the findings as the gospel truth as the absolute production costs for these lettuce types,” Smith said. “The findings should serve as a template on production costs.

Industry members are encouraged to plug in their own costs and compare the two.”

The survey results peg the average costs to grow one acre of iceberg lettuce crop at $7,999; $8,847 for romaine hearts/acre; and $9,112 for organic leaf lettuce/acre. The costs include production, overhead, and harvest expenditures.

Lettuce production costs have jumped $500-$800 per acre since 2001, Smith says. The increases would have been higher if the 2009 survey had been conducted in 2008 when spiking prices for fertilizer, fuel, and other inputs hit record levels.

“The production costs are not necessarily reflective of any one particular operation,” Smith says. “It is a rough average of all costs from different growers who all grow lettuce differently.”

Organic leaf lettuce production costs were slightly higher than conventionally-grown lettuce, Smith says. Organic yields tend to be lower than conventional yields.

The lettuce cost comparisons are based on: iceberg lettuce grown in 40-inch wide beds with two seed lines with sprinkler irrigation; romaine hearts in 80-inch beds with six seed lines with drip irrigation; and organic leaf lettuce grown in a two seed-line, 40-inch bed with a single drip line.

About 150,000 acres of all types of lettuce are grown in the Salinas Valley. The fertile farming region runs along the Salinas River, nestled between the picturesque Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges in the Central Coast region.

“The lettuce survey findings allow growers to reflect on these costs and then compare them with their own costs,” Smith said. “It provides the opportunity to see the areas where a grower already excels and perhaps areas where efficiency could be improved.”

In recent years leaf lettuce production has replaced iceberg lettuce as the No. 1 lettuce type grown in the Salinas Valley acreage wise. Drip-irrigated 80-inch leaf beds are increasing in popularity over traditional, sprinkler-irrigated 40-inch beds.

Growing iceberg lettuce in 80-inch beds is increasing for salad-plant (processing) use, Smith says. The 40-inch bed remains the industry standard for the fresh market iceberg lettuce.

Monterey County is the “800-pound gorilla” in cool season vegetable production, Smith says. About 150,000 acres of leaf and iceberg lettuces are grown in the county.

About 3,500 acres of lettuces dotted the Santa Cruz County landscape in 2007, an area more widely recognized for strawberry and raspberry production.

The survey results indicate other findings and potential far-reaching benefits.

Weed control and fertilization continue to cost more in organic production than the conventional route. Cool soils slow organic lettuce development early in the season but the crops can develop quickly during the main growing season if damaging insects are controlled.

One successful insect control method in organic production is insectary crops planted in every 20th row. Common crops include alyssum, clovers, grasses, and other plants which provide an important food source for beneficial parasitic and predacious insects. Insectary plantings cost about $4 per acre.

The insects combat lettuce’s arch enemy, the lettuce aphid, plus other aphid species and pests. The insectary bed reduces lettuce-growing space by about 5 percent.

The popularity of organic insectaries is crossing the aisle into some conventional crops.

“Some conventional celery growers are putting in habitat plants as they transplant celery,” Smith said.

“The habitat plants are planted every several feet and give celery a slight advantage due to the robust beneficial insect population.”

The lettuce cost studies also provide valuable information for finance companies and pesticide registrations. Smith hopes the data could become a much-needed game changer for improved weed control in conventionally-grown leaf lettuce.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) glitch caused a halt to the use of the herbicide Kerb in leaf lettuce. The snafu increased weeding costs for some growers. EPA is requiring a new registration process to allow Kerb back on the market.

“The unavailability of Kerb to control weeds in leaf lettuce has caused economic pressures for growers who already face mounting financial pressures,” Smith said.

Smith says Kerb provides good broadleaf control of the No. 1 weed in lettuce, shepherd’s purse, especially during the early growing season.

From April 1, 2009, to Dec. 1, 2009, about 64 percent of California’s statewide iceberg lettuce crop was grown for field-pack carton sales (fresh market) with about 36 percent sold for processing, according to Mary Zischke, chief executive officer, California Leafy Greens Research Program, Salinas, Calif.

About 78 percent of the romaine leaf lettuce crop was field packed with the remaining 22 percent for the processing market.

Annual lettuce plantings in the Salinas Valley begin in late December. Harvest begins in late March in the southern King City area. Harvest generally ends by mid-November when most production has shifted to the low desert region in California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Yuma County for the winter produce-growing season.

For more information about the lettuce cost studies, contact Smith at (831) 759-7357 or rifsmith@ucdavis.edu.

email: cblake@farmpress.com