Upscale Iceberg

Two years ago, threatening flood waters in Arizona's desert growing areas pushed lettuce prices higher than they'd ever been before. Panic buying drove the wholesale price of a carton of 24 heads of lettuce higher than $30. In the produce section, those increases were reflected in retail prices of more than $2 a head.

The next month and a half may make those times seem like the good old days.

With a head of iceberg lettuce already selling for as much as $1.99 near the end of the desert growing season (for all intents and purposes, the last shipments went out last Friday), retailers are now faced with the opening of harvest in the storm-damaged Huron district in the San Joaquin Valley. Six weeks from now, that harvest will shift to the Salinas Valley, parts of which are still under water.

"We will always have product available," says Derek Derdivanis, a managing partner for produce broker Fresh Network. "But we are going to see prices that we have not been familiar with."

Already, wholesale prices are heading toward the $30 a carton mark. At this time of year, given a typical harvest, that same carton would normally sell for between $5 and $10.

On the other hand, it's important to remember that the high 1993 market was due more to a fear of a crop shortage than an actual shortage. Also, even in the Huron district, which begins harvesting this week, it will take several days to determine exactly how much of the crop is damaged. That is doubly true for the Salinas Valley crop, which is still six weeks away.

At this point, the state Department of Food and Agriculture estimates the iceberg lettuce harvest for the year will be down less than 4%, spokesperson Emma Suarez says. "This would not justify this kind of pricing over an extended period, though in the short term you might see supply gaps that could cause it."

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