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After the Flood : Yuma’s Gila River Recedes, but Damage and Prices Remain High

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rare Arizona floodwaters that ravaged thousands of acres of iceberg lettuce this year near Yuma have stabilized, and a brief pricing panic has eased, but the damage is long-term and so are high prices, farmers warned Friday.

A scramble to beat the flood by harvesting the lettuce early has disrupted the winter market, ensuring continued spot shortages, uneven quality and a retail roller-coaster that has sent Southern California supermarket prices up 50% to 60%.

Lettuce sales in the supermarket have tumbled, and “people are resorting to broccoli,” said one Vons store manager in West Los Angeles.

And though some California lettuce fields are just a few weeks from a harvest that would pick up the slack from Arizona’s winter crop, the California output may be smaller than usual because planting in December was limited by heavy winter rains in the Fresno and Salinas regions.

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It all points toward continued high prices for consumers--and for farmers trying to offset their losses in Arizona. But for lettuce growers who missed the floods in Arizona and California’s nearby Imperial Valley, it has been a bonanza.

Wholesale prices for lettuce tripled and quadrupled in the course of several days--from as low as $6 for a carton of two dozen heads of lettuce in Arizona to $24, as the historic flood slowly approached and finally arrived in the rich farmland along the normally dry bed of the Gila River in the far southwestern corner of the state.

The region, which is irrigated by the federal Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District, is the source of two-thirds of the nation’s iceberg lettuce between December and late March. It is also a key source of broccoli and cauliflower.

Triggered by heavy winter rains, the widely predicted flood gave many growers time to harvest immature lettuce in advance of the deluge, salvaging part of their crops and fetching premium prices, but it also meant small, lesser-quality lettuce for grocery shoppers.

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“People who were really in hell’s path got in and cut early,” said Vic Lanini, general manager at Bruce Church Inc., a big Salinas-based grower, packer and shipper that lost about 150 acres of lettuce to the Yuma flood.

But Lanini confirmed that his losses are mitigated by what he called the “panic pricing” commanded by lettuce that the floodwaters missed.

Meanwhile, prices of iceberg lettuce grown across the state line toward El Centro, where there were no floods, shot up in lock-step with the Arizona product.

The effects of the early harvest will continue. It created a hole in the supply chain by depriving the market of lettuce that would have been cut later this month, forcing prices back up again even though the floodwaters have stopped spreading.

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On the wholesale iceberg-lettuce market in Los Angeles on Friday, prices rose $2 a carton to $14 after several days of decline from the $25 peak. Prices normally range seasonally from $4 to $12, but some now predict several months in the $13 to $15 range.

Supermarket prices don’t appear to fully reflect the leap at wholesale, though a head of iceberg lettuce at the Vons on West Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles now costs $1.29 versus 79 cents in early February. Elsewhere, prices have hit $1.49. Signs in Vons produce departments explain that floods in Arizona are the reason.

While the high prices cut into supermarket sales, growers say the driving force in the lettuce business is restaurant customers such as McDonald’s, which will serve lettuce on its hamburgers at any cost.

Though California’s role in the winter lettuce market has declined lately because of damage from the whitefly infestation in the Imperial Valley, the state is the nation’s top producer of lettuce. Sales of nearly $700 million a year make it California’s No. 8 farm product.

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But farmers along Arizona’s Gila River, the last tributary of the Colorado River before it empties into the Gulf of California, are settling in for a long siege. Floodwaters are expected to cover thousands of acres into April or longer.

The river’s flow appeared to peak earlier this week at 25,000 cubic feet per second, or five times the previous record flow and more than twice what the channel was built to handle. That record flow over the Painted Rock Dam is expected to continue for several weeks until the brimful reservoir behind it begins to empty.

Water now covers about 17,000 acres of farmland, but another 30,000 has been flooded by ground water forced upward by the hydrologic pressure from the gushing river, said Ken Evans, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau.

Evans said the “best-case” outlook for the flooded farmland is for half the normal crop yield over the next year. But the more “insidious” damage will come from salt deposits that will be left in the soil when the ground water recedes, he said.

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The Farm Bureau told Arizona’s congressional delegation that damage to buildings and the irrigation infrastructure could reach $200 million and that direct crop losses are already about $75 million. Longer-term crop losses are impossible to know, Evans said.

Lettuce Prices Flooding in Arizona is driving up the price of lettuce. In supermarkets, prices jumped this week from 89 cents a head to as high as $1.49 Average Los Angeles Wholesale Price (Per carton of 24 heads of iceberg lettuce from Arizona and California) Feb. 26: $25.00 March 5: $14.50Source: Federal-State Market News


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