Furtively, Rozina Cipko approached a bundle of Napa cabbage, tore off a small leaf, and nibbled it, wrinkling her nose and forehead in concentration.
The longtime Thousand Oaks resident was quietly taste-testing leafy greens at a supermarket produce counter in a quest to find a low-cost replacement for her favorite salad food.
Iceberg lettuce this week soared to its highest price in almost a decade, reaching $1.99 a head in some major chains. The cost of romaine and red- and green-leaf lettuce also skyrocketed, to $1.20 or more per bundle.
The culprit: this year’s heavy winter rains, which delayed lettuce planting throughout California, causing a so-called “crop gap,” a stretch of several weeks with very low harvest.
Because it takes lettuce two months to mature, the effects of February and March rains are just now rippling through to grocery stores across the state.
Although prices began to drop in wholesale markets Wednesday and Thursday, retail rates are expected to remain unseasonably high for the next several weeks, periodically reaching $2 for iceberg.
“It’s so outrageous,” Cipko grumbled, frowning at a Vons sign that apologized for the prices. “It’s a disgrace. It’s disgusting. It’s unreasonable.”
Or, from the farmers’ point of view, it’s wonderful.
Although growers’ harvests are smaller than usual because of the winter rains, this week’s sky-high prices more than compensate, analysts said.
Ventura County does not produce much iceberg lettuce--only about $7 million worth in 1990-'91, or just 3% of the value of the county’s lemon crop. But the Oxnard plains are ideal for growing various leaf lettuce during late fall and early spring. Two years ago, local growers produced more than $20 million worth of these more gourmet varieties.
Ranchers who managed to slip seeds in the ground between storms this winter are reaping the benefit now, as their crop matures in time for the most buoyant lettuce market since the mid-1980s.
Of course, “the success of some farmers is due to bad luck at someone else’s expense,” said Jeff Foster, a salesman at Boskovitch Farms, which grows romaine and leaf lettuce. “We’re making money, but not as much as you might think.”
Paradoxically, high prices tend to signal poor quality. The rains prevented farmers from spraying pesticides, fertilizing the soil and weeding around their seedlings, so much of the lettuce on the market now is blemished.
Undersized heads, discolored stems and leaves pockmarked by tiny insect bites are the most common problems, growers said. And because of the production squeeze throughout California, even imperfect vegetables end up on supermarket shelves.
Customers have noticed.
“Look at these little black things,” Kim Tevel said in disgust, holding up a shred of green-leaf lettuce that looked singed around the edges.
As the owner of California Chicks, a Thousand Oaks cafe featuring a salad bar and sandwiches, Tevel has noticed lettuce prices rising steadily for six weeks, topping out Thursday at three times the normal rate. Still, she must keep buying.
“Maybe one in 10 customers asks for spinach or romaine lettuce, but most want their iceberg,” said the cafe’s manager, Larry Freed. “They’d go through the roof if it wasn’t out there.”
Lee Pantages said his restaurant’s lettuce bill has jumped from about $50 a week to almost $220. He tries to get away with using chard, which sports thick bluish-green leaves, in salads at his Side Street Cafe in Newbury Park, but he can’t avoid using romaine for garnishes and sandwiches.
“You just have to have it,” he explained.
Some consumers have sworn off lettuce until prices drop. At one Lucky store in Thousand Oaks, a produce manager said he’s been selling about 120 heads of iceberg lettuce a day this week, contrasted with an average of 190 a day when prices hold steady below a dollar.
“Lettuce is one of my mainstays,” Thousand Oaks resident Gertie Giezentanner explained when she tossed a shrink-wrapped head of iceberg into her shopping cart after goggling at the price.
“But if it stays this expensive, I’m going to have to think of something else to eat.”