Salinas and Yuma Are 500 Miles Apart—But Agribusiness Is Growing Them Closer

The California and Arizona Cities Have Been Fused by Consumers' Year-Round Appetite for Fresh Produce

A farmworker applies pesticides to leaf lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, in 2011. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Salinas, California and Yuma, Arizona are quite far apart—485 miles by plane and 600 by car.

But no two cities in the West are closer.

Salinas and Yuma are bound by two unstoppable California forces: salad and consumer expectation. We expect to have fresh salads on our tables year-round. In October, an arduous process makes that possible by linking the two cities. It goes by a deceptively simple name: Transition.

Transition happens twice a year. In the fall, major lettuce and vegetable growers and processors in Salinas literally pack up and move their entire operations—workers, supervisors, and multimillion-dollar processing facilities—to Yuma. In early spring, they reverse the process, returning from Yuma back to Salinas.

The reasons are climatic. Salinas may have California’s best weather in the spring and summer, but, as native son John Steinbeck once noted, “the high gray-flannel fog of winter” can “close off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.” Yuma, meanwhile, claims to be the sunniest populated place in the United States. So, to assure its official status as “Salad Bowl of the World,” Salinas requires four months of assistance each year from Yuma, the “Winter Fresh Vegetable Capital of the United States.”

But Transition has costs. These start with the logistical challenges of rapidly relocating not just crops but also the increasingly sophisticated technology used in processing what is grown for pre-packaged salads and pre-cut fresh vegetables. The farm operations that make the Transition typically shift a crop’s production in three days—usually over a weekend.

As sales of specialty products like bok choy and heirloom spinach have grown, so has the scale of Transition. During these fall weeks, people in Salinas and Yuma will see hundreds of trucks and pieces of agricultural equipment, sometimes blocking streets as companies pack and unpack. If you spot massive convoys of trucks on highways on an October weekend—one grower required 125 trucks last year—you may be seeing Transition in action.

“If you’re not part of Transition, it sounds ridiculous: ‘You mean, we’re going to tear down our $80 million operation and move it to Yuma and put it back together in three days?’” says Clint Cowden, an industry veteran who is dean of career technical education and workforce development at Hartnell College in Salinas. “But if you are part of it, it’s normal.”

The Salinas-Yuma Transition is the product of consolidation; California once had multiple lettuce districts, but they’ve been gobbled up by other crops and housing development. One of the last remaining such districts, in Huron in western Fresno County, is still a brief side-trip for some Salinas growers, who stop for a couple weeks of harvest on their way to Yuma.

That Arizona city is a natural and longtime California partner. Set at a narrow part of the Colorado River just across from California, Yuma was a major entry point for migrants to California, from the Gold Rush to the Dust Bowl. The area has been an agricultural marvel since the 1912 completion of the Yuma Siphon, a massive irrigation tunnel under the Colorado River.

Today, Salinas, a city of 157,000 in Monterey County, and Yuma, a city of 95,000 in a desert valley of 200,000, jointly support a $3.8 billion piece of the agricultural industry, and so the stakes of Transition are higher.

Climate change has made weather less predictable in both places, so some growers use fields in Mexico as a weather hedge. (Yuma has had unexpected bouts of winter frost and early spring heat that can damage lettuce.)

Transition also has emerged as a suspect in some cases of food contamination; a commission investigating the E. coli found in romaine lettuce from Yuma last season has questioned why such cases appear more likely to happen late in seasons, often right around the time of Transition.

But the biggest costs of Transition lie in the adjustments both cities make as a big piece of their economy departs and returns every year.

Right now, Salinas people can look forward to the lighter traffic of winter. “It becomes a lot easier to make a left turn on Abbott Street,” says former Mayor Dennis Donohue. The city’s airport, though, gets busier, as Salinas-based growers use small planes to commute to Yuma during the week. Salinas teachers say that some students struggle in the winter when farmworker parents head off to Yuma, leaving them with other relatives.

Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls says his residents have become accustomed to streets that brim with agricultural equipment at this time of year. In addition to the 40,000 people who show up for farm work in winter, Yuma gets another 100,000 visitors to its charming downtown and recreational opportunities, especially along the riverfront. The city’s main challenge is accommodating this seasonal population growth. Nicholls notes that the reconstruction of an Interstate 8 interchange in Yuma has been paused for six months so that it doesn’t slow down agriculture-related traffic.

After decades of Transition, Yuma is becoming less of a little brother in the Salinas relationship. Yuma’s growing season has gotten a little longer, and companies are expanding facilities for storage and processing. Yuma also has become more appealing to workers than Salinas, largely because of California’s housing mess. Traditionally, workers built their lives in Salinas, but some now prefer to make their main residence in Yuma or the neighboring cities of San Luis or Somerton, which produce plentiful and affordable starter homes.

In comparison, Salinas housing is miserably expensive, with workers squeezing into shared apartments or living in trailers or cars. (One-third of students in the Salinas City Elementary School District are considered homeless because they have no postal address.) In response, some Salinas growers, finding it harder to recruit and retain workers to California, have launched major projects to build worker housing, modeled on a $17 million complex in Spreckels, next door to Salinas, that was opened by vegetable grower Tanimura & Antle in 2016.

Salinas and Yuma are actually similar in profile. Both are poorer cities in beautiful settings, with young, majority-Latino populations. But for all the ways that salad shrinks geography and blurs the lines between California and Arizona, there have been few formal collaborations between Salinas and Yuma outside of agriculture and workforce.

Mayor Nicholls and other civic leaders in both places say cultural and educational exchanges would make sense. But when is there time? Both cities are consumed with the never-ending task of meeting the demand for fresh food—and of providing for those who work so we might eat.


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