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Vegetable market strengthens on decreased supplies from the West

by Tim Linden | January 12, 2011
Aside from the dawning of 2011, New Year's weekend also brought freezing temperatures to much of California and Arizona, which have resulted in a bit of a supply gap for a number of vegetables items.

Tim Tomasello, sales manager of Ippolito International LP in Salinas, CA, said that the severity of the cold weather over the three-day weekend caught some people by surprise. Combined with a bunching of many crops prior to that and a few quality problems, this situation caused many vegetable prices to spike during the week of Jan. 10-15.

Broccoli bunches were in the $15-$18 range, while crowns were moving above the $20-per-carton mark. Cauliflower was trading in the mid-teens, as was celery. By Jan. 12, Iceberg lettuce prices were in the low teens but were expected to move higher. Romaine and spinach were also in the same price range. Some of the leaf items were dragging behind, but price spikes were expected as the week wore on.

"If you look at the sales sheet, the price hikes are pretty much across the board," said Mr. Tomasello. “We expect supplies will remain short for at least another 10 days. Some items may remain short a little bit longer than that, but I think your core items will see a return to better supplies in 10 days to two weeks.”

If his forecast is correct, prices should remain strong until late January. Douglas Schaefer, president of E.J.’s Produce Sales in Phoenix, concurred that it would be late January before supplies rebound and prices moderate. He said that broccoli prices had climbed the highest, reaching the $20 range, which he attributed to a combination of the freezing temperatures over New Year’s weekend and two weeks of rain along the California coast in late December.

“Prior to the cold weather, we had trouble with quality because of the rain,” said Mr. Schaefer. “We had one load [of broccoli] with pin rot that we wouldn’t even send to the food banks. We had to dump it.”

He said that the cold temperatures have not only delayed harvest, they also damaged some fields. “I know of one grower in the Phoenix area that lost an entire 60-acre broccoli field,” he said. “Broccoli is usually hardy, but he had five days of freezing temperatures.”

Mr. Schaefer said that strawberries have also been a victim of Mother Nature. “I can’t remember strawberries being this high (above $20) for this long, and there is no letup in sight.”

Both coasts have been hammered, with either cold weather or rain severely hampering the strawberry harvests for the past month. Mr. Schaefer said that the growing areas need a couple of weeks of warm weather to get back on schedule, but no such warm weather is on the near horizon.

He suggested that it would be at least early February before strawberry supplies are adequate to bring the price down to a normal range.

Mr. Schaefer added that the cold temperatures in Florida and other eastern production areas have also taken their toll on a range of crops, such as sweet corn, peppers and green beans.

He said that Mexican growers are seeing a good start to 2011 because much of the strawberries and broccoli currently being sold in the United States originated in fields south of the border.