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Storms pummel the West while impact lags not too far behind

by Tim Linden | January 20, 2010
A series of strong storms have pelted the growing regions in California and Arizona the week of Jan. 18, and although there are expected to be effects, market prices had not yet risen by Jan. 20 for most crops.

Virtually all the growing regions in California and Arizona were affected as the storms began Sunday, Jan. 17, and were expected to last all week. In fact, at press time, what was expected to be the strongest storm was still sitting offshore with landfall predicted for Thursday and Friday, Jan. 21 and 22.

"We've gotten a lot of rain," David Cook, a salesperson for Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, CA, said Jan. 20. "Since Sunday night, we have gotten about 3.5 inches with the biggest storm expected to hit tomorrow."

Mr. Cook said that most shippers harvested heavily in advance of the storms over the weekend "so the cold rooms are full." Because of that, market prices on most vegetables had not seen a jump.

He said that strawberry prices were fairly strong at $18-20 per tray going into the wet weather, and they did not change. "Florida has rebounded from their bad weather, so currently there are enough berries to meet demand. But by [the week of Jan. 25], there may be a gap."

Douglas Schaefer, president of EJ's Produce Sales Inc. in Phoenix, agreed that the price impact had not hit yet, but he predicted that there would be a bump eventually. "If not [the week of Jan. 25], then the following week. There has been a lot of rain [in the growing districts], and at some point, it is going to catch up with us."

He concurred that shippers' coolers were loaded the week of Jan. 18, so there was no change in the price of Iceberg lettuce and the other leafy greens. In fact, most of those items were selling below cost, in the $7-$8 per carton range. One exception was celery, which was trading in the $30 per carton range for any count from small to large.

"Celery prices are very high, but that's not because of the storms," Mr. Schaefer said. He explained that Santa Maria growers are winding down their season, and the production from the desert regions in California and Arizona is running two to four weeks behind normal. "I do not know if that is because of cold weather or what, but there is very little celery out there."

Though the storms were causing some production and harvesting problems in California, most growers were happy to see them. California has had three straight drought years, and season rainfall totals for this year have also been running well below normal.

"We've gotten three to four inches in our groves, and that's great news," said Phil Henry, president of Henry Avocado Corp. in Escondido, CA. "There has been wind and there may be some damage, but the benefit from the rain far outweighs any damage that may be caused by the wind."

Though there are some California avocados currently being harvested and sold, Mr. Henry said that most grower-shippers will not enter the deal until supplies from Chile wind down in late February. At an estimated 450 million pounds, California has a large avocado crop this year -- more than twice as large as last year -- so Mr. Henry said that these storms should have no effect on the season.

By Jan. 20, the San Joaquin Valley was also being hit by heavy rains and high winds. The rains were a welcome sight to most growers, and the winds were being tolerated. Al Imbimbo, vice president of sales for Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co. in Lindsay, CA, said the week of Jan. 18 that the storms were keeping the picking crews out of the citrus groves, "but everybody picked ahead over last weekend. It looks like there will be a break in the storms and we can get back in over this next weekend."

He added that the citrus market has been good for the past several weeks, and the storms have done nothing to hurt that. Mr. Imbimbo noted that the storms have done no damage to the fruit on the trees, so he anticipated no shortage in supplies moving forward.