As a new storm lashed Northern California Monday, wholesale vegetable prices rose dramatically statewide, and it became clear that California farmers, particularly almond growers, sustained far greater damage over the weekend than initial reports indicated.
That means California consumers are soon likely to be paying higher prices for some fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce. The price hikes could come as early as this weekend, food industry officials said.
Blue Diamond Growers Inc., the state’s largest almond cooperative, estimated that farmers statewide have lost 10,000 acres of almond trees to high winds and soaking rain, with sales losses over the next four to five years projected to be as much as $100 million.
By comparison, the January storms left a total damage of $97 million to all California farmers.
“A lot of growers say they’ll have only 60% to 70% of last year’s crop,” said Dave Baker, Blue Diamond director of member relations.
Baker added that the effects of the latest storm, along with poor pollination and disease brought on by the earlier bad weather, have already pushed up almond prices.
Prices have risen since Friday in the wholesale vegetable market, and some wholesalers predict they will rise even more dramatically over the next few weeks.
In the Los Angeles wholesale market, for example, broccoli prices have climbed as much as 35% since last Friday. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market News Division, prices of cauliflower have increased more than 18% and iceberg lettuce more than 14%.
“This is just the beginning. We’re going to see much more severe conditions two or three weeks down the road,” said George Poulos, senior buyer at Sacramento-based General Produce Inc., which distributes produce to retail outlets and food services. Poulos noted that a box of broccoli he bought for $10 to $12 on Friday at packing houses in Central California was going for $12 to $17 on Monday.
Although produce brokers expect higher prices to follow on retail supermarket shelves, they also caution that production from undamaged fields in the Coachella Valley, Imperial Valley, Yuma, Ariz., and northern Mexico could soon compensate what was lost in Northern and Central California, bringing prices back down.
“Consumers are going to see higher prices, but there will be plenty of food,” said Richard Mount, executive vice president of the Associated Produce Dealers and Brokers of L.A., a trade association. Mount said he also expects retail markets to slash prices on frozen vegetables, which could represent a bargain to consumers facing higher prices for fresh produce.
“You’ll start to see some price changes this weekend and more next week,” said Dick Spezzano, vice president of produce and floral for the Vons Cos. “This is not going to be a short-term thing, because you’ve had severe damage to the growing fields.”
Spezzano predicted even higher wholesale prices--from $18 to $20 a box--for broccoli by the middle of this week--and also for strawberries, artichokes, lettuce, celery, cauliflower and probably asparagus.
He added that one likely effect is that consumers will not see the normal price drops later in the year. Asparagus, for instance, normally falls from $1.99 a pound at this time of year to around 79 cents during the peak of the harvest, he noted.
California packing houses, however, report adequate supplies of citrus and tree fruit, said David L. Moore, president of the Western Growers Assn. Farmers of these can continue to send produce to market, no matter their soggy acreage.
“Even if they couldn’t get into the field to get something out,” Moore said on Monday, “it doesn’t affect you on a daily basis as it does with iceberg lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and strawberries, which could be affected greatly.”
Among other big California crops, planting of rice and cotton will be delayed, farm experts said, and fruit-tree pollination has been hampered by the gray skies, wind and rain because bees do a poor job pollinating in those conditions.
“It’s sort of touch-and-go now,” said Jerry Siebert, an economist with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley. “We’re just hopeful that we will get a dry April so we can get in there and work the ground.”
Although fruits and nuts, the leading agricultural sector, have been the hardest hit so far, cotton is the state’s single biggest crop, accounting for $2 billion in sales last year, Siebert noted.
* NEW STORM: Rains resume up north, with a threat of more flooding. A1
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Here’s the current state of major storm-battered crops, according to the California Farm Bureau:
Almonds: Among the worst hit of all the farm sectors, with thousands of acres of toppled trees in Sacramento, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Madera and Kern counties.
Strawberries: Harvest will be delayed at least a week in Ventura and Orange Counties as fields dry out. Total loss from flooding in Watsonville area of about 600 acres, of the 2,300 acres of strawberries in the state.
Vegetables: Flooded fields with damage to lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes and cabbage, particularly in the Salinas Valley and west San Joaquin Valley.
Fruit: Fungus and poor pollination expected in peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, cherries, and apples.