The Back Page : Blame It on the Rain

Mid-winter is never a prime time for vegetable shopping, but usually you can find seasonal staples--things such as broccoli, cauliflower and celery--at very reasonable prices. Call them the 39-cents-a-pound crowd.

Not this year. Check around and you'll see that those staples are now selling at luxury prices. In fact, it seems the supermarkets are doing everything they can to keep them under $1 a pound.

According to USDA statistics, February wholesale prices for cauliflower were a whopping 2 1/2 times last year's level. Broccoli was half-again as much and cauliflower was up 30%.

Blame it on the rain. At this time of year, the lion's share of the nation's harvest of those crops comes from Southern and Central California--exactly the areas most affected by January and February deluges. Not only are harvests small, but quality is highly variable.

"There's an old saying in produce, when quality is at its worst, prices are highest; when quality is best, prices are lowest," says Dick Spezzano, produce manager for Vons grocery stores. That is, good quality usually coincides with big harvests. What's more, Spezzano sees harder times ahead, predicting a supply gap for these winter vegetables from the middle of March to the first of April.

"With the rain, basically what happened was farmers' schedules got mixed up and stuff didn't get taken care of," says David Cook of Deardorff-Jackson Co., a major produce distributor. "That results in decreased yield and poor quality. You've got cauliflower that won't travel, and lots of broccoli that won't travel. That stuff we can sell to the secondary markets--fruit peddlers and farmers markets. But you won't see it show up in the chain stores. Supermarkets in L.A. have standards that are not very flexible. They won't trade off quality for price."

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