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Vegetable markets are going strong, but spring should bring supplies back to normal

by Tim Linden | March 18, 2010
Shippers of peppers, broccoli, celery, cauliflower and even Iceberg lettuce who had good supplies of product have had a pretty good past month.

"Supplies have been tight," Douglas Schaefer, president of E.J.'s Produce Sales Inc. in Phoenix, told The Produce News. "Green peppers in Nogales have been selling for $40 a carton and $45 for jumbos. I've never seen prices that high."

Mr. Schaefer said March 17 that the cauliflower market had been strong for the past several weeks and that celery has been in a demand-exceeds- supply situation for several months. "I've never seen so little celery planted. There just hasn't been any. Cauliflower got into the high teens, but that usually levels things off, so I suspect that's going to happen this week."

Mr. Schaefer said that a combination of the cold January weather in Florida and the above-average rainfall in California for the past several months has led to the recent strong market -- and in fact a fairly good market for much of the time since the beginning of the year.

The Iceberg and leaf lettuce markets ended 2009 and started 2010 with good prices, but they fell quite a bit -- especially in February -- as cold East Coast weather curtailed demand. But during this period, the inclement California and Arizona weather continued and demand and supply finally got back in line as March rolled in.

For most of the first two weeks of March, lettuce prices were in the low teens and shippers saw good movement.

"The weather finally caught up with us," said Thomas M. Nunes, vice president of operations for The Nunes Co. in Salinas, CA.

Mr. Nunes, who spent much of the winter in Yuma, AZ, managing the company's harvesting operations in the desert, said that it was a simple case of supply gaps resulting from earlier wet weather. He said that supplies were spotty, which increased demand and caused the market to rise.

While the desert deal and the West Mexican winter vegetable deal are nearing their respective ends, new production areas loom on the horizon.

Mr. Schaefer said that California's coastal regions, ranging from Oxnard through Santa Maria and into the Salinas Valley, are starting to come back to life, and supplies should be picking up in each of those areas. Add in the normal shift of lettuce production from the desert to the spring deal in Huron, which is located on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley in central California, and the future for supplies looks good.

"Things are starting to loosen up this week," he said. "Lettuce is already coming down. Santa Maria and Salinas are getting started and Florida is shipping again."

California and Arizona had abundant rain on Friday, March 12, but warm weather was the order of the day for most of the week of March 15-19, with temperatures climbing into the 70s near the coast and well into the 80s in the warmest valleys.

A week or two of these temperatures and the spring crops will mature quickly.

Of course, the West Coast growers interviewed by The Produce News were also elated by the rise of temperatures on the East Coast, which typically results in increased consumption of lettuce and the other vegetable items.