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Why lettuce is getting so expensive

Russ Parsons
The California Cook
What's to blame for the rising costs of lettuce and cauliflower?

If you’re making a salad in the next couple of weeks, you might want to consider switching to arugula — lettuce might be too expensive. And don’t even think about putting any cauliflower in it.

It’s all because of that wacky winter weather -- and despite what you might expect, the drought has nothing to do with it.

Instead, it was the warm temperatures in January and February that pushed some winter vegetables to peak harvest way too early, leaving gaps in the supply chain now that are pushing up prices.

For example, red leaf lettuce that was selling at wholesale for $12 to $15 a carton at this time last year is now going for twice that much -- $25 to $30. Romaine hearts that were $18 to $20 wholesale last year are now $21 to $25. 

So far iceberg lettuce has been holding steady, but produce pros say that we should starting seeing a gap in that in the next week or so.

Cauliflower is similarly high -- $24 to $28 a wholesale carton, compared with $12 to $13 just this February. 

Every increase in the wholesale price does not create a corresponding bump at retail because supermarkets like to keep prices as steady as possible, even if it means taking a loss sometimes. 

But almost invariably with increases on this scale, prices are going to go up.

It all comes down to a nasty trick Mother Nature played on farmers this winter. 

Farmers plant in different areas in order to assure a steady supply of vegetables. In the case of lettuce, they plan the winter harvest out of the Coachella Valley and Yuma, Ariz., to segue smoothly to the spring and summer harvests from various fields in the Salinas Valley. 

This way, they’ll be able to offer a dependable inventory at consistent prices, if the weather cooperates.

But this winter was anything but cooperative, says Mark McBride of Coastline Family Farms, a major vegetable grower based in the Salinas Valley.

“As soon as we put our best-laid plans on paper, Mother Nature comes along,” he says. “When the weather is warmer than normal, the crops mature and come to harvest earlier.”

The problem comes when those fields are finished being harvested before the next ones are ready. 

“All winter we’ve been 10 to 21 days ahead of schedule, and for the next few weeks, we’re going to have to pay the piper for that,” McBride says.

First, the warm winter weather was a blessing to shoppers, as the early Salinas and late desert harvests collided, creating a glut of lettuce that drove prices so low that, McBride says, some growers didn’t even harvest all of their fields.

But now comes the payback as the Salinas fields that were planted next in the rotation are not yet ready.

McBride says that once this little hiccup works its way through the supply chain in late May or early June, things should return to normal -- or as normal as farming gets anyway.

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1.

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