Snows Unsettle Produce Prices in Southland


This week’s devastating East Coast blizzard has unsettled California’s fruit and vegetable markets, resulting in Southland shoppers finding both bargains and sticker shock in the produce section.

Shippers’ decision not to transport some products eastward, such as lettuce and broccoli, has resulted in gluts of those items here. For Southern California shoppers, it means the head of lettuce that cost $1.69 to $1.89 before the blizzard is now just 69 cents to 89 cents, said Michael Marks, a sales representative for JC Produce in Los Angeles.

Similarly, broccoli has dropped from about $1.70 a bunch to 70 cents, Marks said. Strawberries can now be found at $1.99 a basket, just half what they cost at the beginning of the year.


On the other hand, growers of some products, primarily out of Mexico, have decided to ship anyway, taking a risk that their produce won’t be delayed by further storms and spoil.

Accordingly, wholesale prices in Los Angeles of vegetables such as green peppers, zucchini and cucumbers have doubled or more in a week, pushed up by the premium prices that East Coast markets are paying. Cold weather in Florida and Georgia also damaged crops that normally make it to markets in the East, pushing up prices further.

The retail price of a green pepper has recently risen by half, to 50 cents, and green beans have gone from about $1.20 a pound to $2 a pound, according to Marks.

“It’s screwy,” said one salesman at the Los Angeles Wholesale Market, who declined to be identified. “It’s totally disrupted. Panic has a lot to do with the produce market.”

For produce shippers, the storms on the East Coast offered a risky opportunity. The bare supermarket shelves there beckon with top-dollar prices. But another winter storm could strand shippers’ trucks on snow-clogged streets. After the three- or four-day cross-country journey, the produce could rot in the trucks, a total loss.

Many California shippers chose the safe, less lucrative route, flooding West Coast markets.


“They’ve got to move it and they’ve got to move it fast,” Marks said.

Consider iceberg lettuce, which at this time of year comes mostly from the Imperial Valley and western Arizona.

An early and bountiful harvest last fall kept wholesale prices in Los Angeles depressed between $6 and $7 for a box of 24, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, the harvest was so early that by the end of December, there was a lettuce shortage. Compounded with bad weather during the planting of the next crop, prices soared to more than $20 for the same 24-head box. Then came the blizzard, which for three days shut out a quarter of the market. Shippers began to battle over business in the West, Midwest and Northeast, said Bill Ramsey of Mann Packing in Salinas, Calif.

“Because of the fact it couldn’t go East, it caused an overflow here,” said M.J. Shine, head of the USDA’s Los Angeles news office.

The erstwhile lettuce shortage had become a West Coast lettuce glut, and wholesale prices this week tumbled by half.

Similar price swings occurred for broccoli and cauliflower. The ups and downs have in fact almost canceled each other, Marks said. Current prices for these items are in fact close to what is normal for the season, he said.

Not all produce has suffered from price gyrations. California celery, for instance, has maintained a wholesale price of $6 to $7 for 24 bunches through the last month. Prices for citrus fruits have also not swung back and forth as much, because those don’t spoil as easily. Also, the Florida frosts did not badly damage crops there this year.


Times researcher Jennifer Oldham contributed to this report.


Gyrating Produce Prices

The snowstorms that blanketed the East Coast this week prevented produce shipment from California, causing prices for some of the state’s fruits and vegetables and tomatoes from Mexico to plummet as much as 50%. However, beans from Mexico are more expensive after the storm caused a deep freeze in Florida. A look at the weather’s effects on produce prices:

Vegetable: Lettuce

Retail price before the storm: $1.69 to $1.89 a head

Retail price after storm: 89 cents a head


Vegetable: Broccoli

Retail price before the storm: $1.59 to $1.79 a bunch (1)

Retail price after storm: 69 cents to 89 cents a bunch


Vegetable: Cauliflower

Retail price before the storm: $2.09 to $2.19 a head

Retail price after storm: 99 cents to $1.19 a head


Vegetable: Tomatoes

Retail price before the storm: $2.00 a pound

Retail price after storm: 89 cents a pound


Vegetable: Strawberries

Retail price before the storm: $3.49 to $3.99 a basket

Retail price after storm: $1.99 a basket


Vegetable: Green Beans

Retail price before the storm: 99 cents to $1.39 a pound

Retail price after storm: $1.89 to $1.99 a pound


Note: Shippers emphasize that vegetable and fruit prices were artificially high before the storms because produce was being harvested and shipped faster because of fair weather in California.

(1) A bunch contains more than one pound.

Sources: Jim Morris, California Farm Bureau; Pete Carcione, Carcione’s Fresh Produce; Michael Marks, JC Produce; Bill Ramsey, Mann Packing; David Martinez, Merrill Farms

Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times