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Western vegetable market drops but could be headed back up

by Tim Linden | January 13, 2010
As would be expected, the end of the holiday season brought the red hot California and Arizona lettuce and leafy green vegetable markets back to earth, but expected rainfall as well as the cold weather in Florida and Texas could produce another spike in the coming weeks.

In mid-January, the lettuce market was back below $10 per carton, which is considered the break-even point for lettuce. Many other vegetables were also trading in single digits per carton. This is in stark contrast to November and December, when many vegetable items were in the high teens and the Iceberg lettuce market was in the $25-$35 range for at least a couple of weeks.

Jon Vessey, president of Vessey & Co., a diversified grower-shipper of many different vegetables headquartered in Holtville, CA, expects good markets to return by the end of January.

He said in mid-January that the less-than-stellar markets were due to good growing weather in the West and bad eating weather in the East. "The perfect scenario [for a hot market] is when we have bad weather and the East has good weather. It has been just the opposite for the past few weeks."

Cold weather in the East tends to decrease demand, while warm weather in the West increases yields. "We've had some record yields in the Imperial Valley (where Vessey farms) and in Yuma," he said.

Daren Van Dyke, a salesman for Five Crowns Marketing, which is headquartered in Brawley, CA, but grows its winter lettuce in Yuma, AZ, told The Produce News Jan. 13, "We are expecting some wet weather and cold temperatures [the week of Jan. 18-22], which should result in a change in the market. Things are looking pretty good right now. I've been pretty happy with demand. It is picking up."

Mr. Vessey said that the decline in demand after the holidays was to be expected as was the drop in price, but he also believes demand has been pretty good so far in the early stages of 2010.

According to the National Weather Service, heavy rain will hit parts of California and Arizona through much of the week of Jan. 18. It has been estimated that parts of Ventura County on the coast will receive almost 4.5 inches that week, while Coachella in the Southern California desert will check in with more than three inches and Yuma, AZ, which is further east, will receive two inches.

While the National Weather Service predicted that these heavy rains will interrupt harvest throughout California and Arizona and affect markets, Mr. Vessey said that a bigger factor will be warm weather through the rest of the country, which stimulates the eating of salads and increases demand. "The wet weather won't bother us as much as cold weather," he said. "We will still harvest in the rain."

He added that the freezing temperatures in Florida in early January, which undoubtedly affected vegetable production, had not yet been reflected in market prices by Jan. 13.

California and Arizona vegetable shippers are looking at a situation where the market will be stronger moving forward to the end of the month and into February.