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Lettuce Woes Costing Consumers

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The lettuce in Arizona should be ready for harvest, but it’s not. The lettuce in Central California won’t be ready for at least four more weeks.

That leaves California facing one of its worst lettuce shortages and highest prices in 15 years, according to state agricultural specialists.

And when California has a shortage, the whole nation has a shortage. The result has been lettuce costing up to $3 a head.

That’s because more than 50% of the nation’s lettuce comes from three California areas--the Imperial Valley in the southeastern corner of the state, the area centered around Huron in Fresno County and the area around Salinas in Monterey County, said Jesus Valencia, farm advisor for the University of California system.

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The lettuce farms rotate harvests to maintain a year-round supply.

The Imperial Valley usually harvests in the late fall, Huron in the spring and Salinas in the late spring and summer.

Vegetable wholesalers rely on Arizona, because of its warm weather, during the winter months.

But a spell of unusually cold weather this year stunted most of Arizona’s lettuce crops, pushing back their harvest window, Valencia said.

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Imperial Valley lettuce production also turned out to be weaker than expected and Huron crops may follow suit.

“Because of the cold weather, the crops didn’t get as big and we didn’t get as many,” said Eric Schwartz, president of operations at Dole Fresh Vegetables in Salinas.

At the same time, the East Coast had an unusually mild winter, which kept the shipping routes open and the demand for lettuce high.

The steady demand and diminished supply translate into skyrocketing prices for most of the country.

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Markets have seen record prices in Northern California, jumping from around $12 a carton to nearly $50.

“Every once in a while, Mother Nature comes along and slaps us in the face,” said Henry Gong, owner of the Star Market in Salinas.

In recent days, Gong and his competitors have had to charge up to $3 for a head of lettuce.

Steve Skuba of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Fruit and Vegetable Market News said he’s never seen prices this high in his 25 years as a market reporter.

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Cartons hit $40 in 1995 after the Salinas floods wiped out much of the region’s lettuce, he said, but those high prices didn’t last long.

Some experts also attribute the rise in prices to a reduction in the amount farmers planted this year.

The Agriculture Department said U.S. farmers planted 179,000 acres of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage between January and March, down 6% from the same time last year.

It’s unclear how long the shortage will last, but most experts think it will be at least four more weeks.

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At that time, Huron farms should be ready for harvest.

But that could set up the market for another problem, Valencia said.

If Arizona farms don’t harvest soon, the market may be flooded by a double harvest, driving down prices and hurting farmers.

“The guys who have lettuce now are happy,” Valencia said. “But by the time the others get theirs harvested, there might be too much on the market. It might not even be worth harvesting.”

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