Rabbitbrush Rambler: Salad days

If you are growing grandma’s kitchen garden or one of our community gardens, you’ll soon be eating loose leaf lettuce. One thing I really miss as an apartment dweller is having a backyard garden where I could just walk out the back door and gather some lettuce and other super-fresh goodies for the evening’s salad, but the nearby grocery store does a good job, too.

Like rabbits, we lettuce eaters enjoy three main types that are found in our markets, chiefly loose leaf, romaine (cos), and head, and we sometimes see a couple of others such as like Boston (bibb). Green or red leaf lettuce and romaine are the most widely available and also have more nutritional value and flavor than paler types. The dark green or red ones are what I used to grow and still like to buy at the store, except during the recent romaine scare.

It’s hard to predict right now how the Valley’s gardens and the Valley’s fields of commercially-grown vegetables will fare with the heat. At our high altitude, authorities used to say, the growing season was only 60 days between killing frosts, but nowadays don’t be surprised if the lettuce in your garden bolts earlier with our warmer, drier conditions.

People in some pretty hot, dry parts of the globe have been eating lettuce for a long time. Nearly 3,000 years ago Egyptians were cultivating and eating it, although they primarily were making oil from the seeds. In Roman times, the naturalist Pliny was advocating the use of the plant for treating illnesses, besides for salad, and in hot, arid Saudi Arabia, I ate “salatat” (salad) that might consist of any cold Middle Eastern vegetable but sometimes we had real imported lettuce.

China grows and consumes large quantities of lettuce, often cooking it, as some old timers like my aunts did on farms in this country, too. As a trade commodity, China grows the most lettuce and the United States second. In this country California is our highest lettuce producer with Arizona second.

The San Luis Valley’s farms have been growing lettuce commercially for nearly 100 years. During the early part of the last century, it had been developed as a crop that could be harvested, packed, cooled with ice, and shipped efficiently all over the country. The proximity of railroad tracks in our Valley was an enormous advantage, with other major factors being the cool climate and irrigation.

A photo made in Conejos County before 1925 shows a large field with rows of head lettuce. South of Blanca there were San Acacio and Jaroso. To the west, sidings served fields around County Road 14, Hanna Lane, and the Gerrard Spur, and a cooling shed was located in Del Norte. To the north was Center, which became dominant for lettuce in the Valley as lettuce fields expanded in 1950 north of Monte Vista. Farms where lettuce had formerly been grown earlier converted to livestock and hay.

While farming changed from horses and tractors and from wagons to trucks, planting became mechanized and packing changed from handmade wooden crates to cardboard boxes. The labor force changed from local seasonal workers to migrant farm workers.

By the 1960s the United Farm Workers movement was becoming a force that eventually brought about improvements in unsatisfactory conditions for workers after demonstrations took place in the Center area and elsewhere in this country. But farm workers still do the bending, weeding, cutting, trimming, lifting boxes onto trailers, and wrapping during harvest, all day long in what is often hot sun even in the San Luis Valley.

Let’s not forget to say thanks to the farm workers, lettuce growers, and markets when we sit down to our plates of delicious, nutritious tossed salad.