Because most people think of Arizona as a big, dry desert, they’re surprised to learn that agriculture is Yuma County’s number-one industry – and that Yuma is the winter vegetable capital of the world.

Sunshine, rich soil and good water create an oasis that produces more than 175 different crops – including more than 90 percent of the North America’s green leafy vegetables from November through March. In fact, agriculture in Yuma County produces an annual return of $3.2 billion, more than one-third of the total for the state.

Hands-on Agriculture Tours

Desert farming is a little different…for example, Yuma farmers get annoyed when it rains! For a down-to-earth look at what makes Yuma agriculture unique, try a hands-on farming lesson on a Field to Feast tour sponsored by the Yuma Visitors Bureau (YVB).

Led by a local grower, these half-day tours sprout in a field planted with a variety of tasty crops at the University of Arizona research farm. After a quick food safety lesson, you’ll get a hairnet, gloves, a harvest knife and a recipe card spelling out what’s needed in the kitchen.

Don’t know kale from collards? YVB’s ag experts can answer your questions. And once you’ve filled the chefs’ order, you can pick your favorite veggie to take home. Then it’s back onto a deluxe motor coach for a look at agriculture in action – the exact itinerary depends on your grower guide and what’s happening in the fields that day.

As you look and learn, culinary students from Arizona Western College will be making a delicious lunch from the fresh harvest. By the time you sit down for the “feast,” you’ll be stuffed with new insights on how healthy Yuma produce gets from the farm to your fork.

Tours for 2014 are set for January 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23, 25, 29 and 30; February 5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 19, 20 and 22; and March 5 and 6. The cost is $45 and includes lunch and produce to take home. Tickets are on sale now. To reserve your seat, call (800) 293-0071 or (928) 783-0071. YVB also offers Farmer to Farmer advanced technical tours for those with a background in agriculture (January 14, February 18 and March 11).

Savor Yuma Culinary Tours

If you’re more interested in what’s on the fork than what’s in the field, try a Savor Yuma culinary tour. During these “progressive dinners” with YVB’s driver at the wheel, you can sample some of Yuma’s best independent restaurants with a convivial group. Try new tastes and meet new friends on 2014 Savor Yuma tours offered on January 7 and 23; February 4 and 20; and March 4 and 20.

Yuma Lettuce Days

Yuma’s winter harvest culminates in Yuma Lettuce Days (March 1–2), a homegrown festival with culinary flair that’s earned a Governor’s TourismYLD 2013 Chef Ray Duey demo 2_FINAL.jpg Award as one of the state’s best special events. Held at the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, Lettuce Days features cooking demonstrations and contests, red-hot ice carvers, a ginormous salad bar and a tasting event showcasing Yuma restaurants.

Headlining Lettuce Days this year will be Chef Chris “CJ” Jacobson, a two-time Top Chef contestant (season three and Top Chef Masters) and executive chef at Girasol restaurant in Studio City, California.

A former professional volleyball player, Jacobson is a graduate of Pepperdine University and the California School of Culinary Arts – Le Cordon Bleu. He’s worked behind the stoves at Axe, Campanile, Mercantile and Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen and has also served as a private chef for Arianna Huffington.

At Lettuce Days, Jacobson will do two live cooking demonstrations each day – with some lucky audience members getting a chance to taste what he whips up on stage.

Putting the Lettuce Days focus on food is a crowd-pleaser, says Linda Jordan, YVB executive director. “Not everyone is interested in details about how to grow spinach, but most folks love to eat. If we attract folks with that as an ‘appetizer,’ they end up digesting a lot of information about how important Yuma is to feeding the nation.”

Lettuce Days also features plenty of farm- and food-related vendors, live entertainment, a beer garden, displays of tractors and other farm equipment, a special Kids Ag-tivities area and “windshield” bus tours through Yuma’s lush fields narrated by local growers.

New features planned for 2014 include a bar where you’ll choose from an array of fresh ingredients to mix up custom salsa or pico de gallo, and free consultations with a “vegetable butcher” who’ll provide recipe suggestions and prep your farmers market purchases for easy cooking. Other plans are still germinating, check for the freshest ingredients at www.yumalettucedays.com.

More Yuma Produce

Through the winter months, Yuma also serves up an array of farmers markets and cooking classes, while local date groves offer the opportunity to sample Medjool dates in many forms, including sweet and creamy date milkshakes.

To plan your fresh Arizona adventure in Yuma, head to http://visityuma.com or call, toll-free, (800) 293-0071. The Visitor Info Center is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. MST, seven days a week through the end of May; closed Mondays, June–September.

Brought to you by the Yuma Visitors Bureau, (800) 293-0071, www.visityuma.com.