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A Leafy Harvest : Lettuce thrives during cooler months. The county’s crop may be in demand with pests attacking in other areas of the state.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year, when the days become shorter and the weather turns cooler, some Ventura County farmers start gearing up for one of the county’s major cash crop harvests.

Fall is lettuce time. A time when local green- and red-leaf strains, long-leafed romaine, butterhead and others, including the ever-popular iceberg head lettuce, fill shelves at area markets. And this year, because of a little white pest that is voraciously consuming crops in other parts of the state, Ventura County farmers might be seeing better prices for their lettuce than in years past.

With the passing of summer, the more temperate months allow lettuce to flourish. And local fields will be bustling with activity as the harvest continues through the winter.

Two types of lettuce will be harvested locally--leaf and head varieties.

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The year’s end marks the area’s second harvest of head lettuce, said Woody Hansen, owner of Seaboard Produce in Oxnard.

“There is a fall planting and a spring planting,” he said.

Leaf lettuce plantings, however, are staggered throughout an eight-month growing season to ensure incremental harvests, Hansen said.

“From October through May, we grow a wide variety of leaf lettuces on 1,000 acres,” Hansen said. “We plant a new 40-acre crop during that period every week.”

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Leaf varieties over the years have come to dominate the Ventura County marketplace. High-yield head lettuce grown in other parts of the state--such as the Salinas Valley and the Bakersfield area--have pinched area farmers. Ventura County growers have settled into a more lucrative niche with leaf lettuce varieties, which are responsible for most of the near $25-million total lettuce production in 1990.

“Head lettuce is real good quality here, but it doesn’t have the reputation like in other areas. Plus, we have a very small window here,” Hansen said, referring to the time when larger growers are out of season and local growers can offer their product.

Ventura County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner David Buettner put things in perspective with the following information: The state’s leading head lettuce producer--the Salinas Valley--utilizes about 75,000 acres for its production. “In Ventura County,” Buettner said, “we grow head lettuce on only 1,267 acres.” (About 7,482 acres are utilized for total lettuce production.)

However, Ventura County’s head lettuce production could possibly play a larger role this season in the statewide marketplace.

In the Imperial Valley--the state’s No. 2 producer with more than 39,000 acres of head lettuce--the much-publicized poinsettia whitefly infestation is decimating much of the season’s harvest. And wholesale buyers will be looking to fill any shortage of supply.

“They will rely more heavily on the counties that have it,” Buettner said. “And Ventura County will be one of those looked upon to help pick up the slack.”

How will lettuce prices be affected with the losses of the Imperial Valley harvest?

Sources say it is too soon to tell.

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“The market is day to day,” Hansen said. “But it looks like in December a price (increase) will be felt.”

“It goes by the old standard,” Buettner said. “Supply and demand.”

Even with a good chunk of the Imperial Valley harvest lost, Buettner said, “an abundance of quality head lettuce will be available, though you might be paying more for it.”

* BUYING TIPS

Anyone who has every bitten into a sandwich and felt mush instead of crunch knows that soggy, droopy lettuce can ruin a meal. Woody Hansen, owner of Seaboard Produce in Oxnard, offers guidelines for picking fresh lettuce:

* Look for vivid color: “You want nice, green leaves. Not bleached, bruised or browned. Pick one that sparkles.”

* Head lettuces should be crisp: “Lettuce is roughage material with a lot of water. The leaves shouldn’t be limp.” For leafy lettuces, Hansen said the leaves should be firm, yet soft.

* The butt, or stem of the lettuce should be white, not brown: “Also, when it’s cut, the butt of the lettuce starts to drip a little bit of milky-white sap. If you can get one that’s still a bit milky, then you’ve picked one that’s as fresh as it can be.”

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