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Lettuce supplies hampered by disease; prices skyrocket

by Tim Linden | January 19, 2011
The f.o.b. price on Iceberg lettuce soared the third week in January as growers continued to fight disease problems which have significantly reduced yields over the past several weeks, especially in the Yuma, AZ, area, which is a major provider of winter lettuce and other vegetables.

Chris Arias, who is on the sales desk at Coastline, a Salinas, CA, vegetable distributor, said that prices have been climbing steadily for a couple of weeks and that on Wednesday, Jan. 19, they were mostly $22-$25 for a carton of Iceberg lettuce. "And we have not reached the peak yet," he predicted. "I think the price will continue to go up. At some point we will hit that magic level [where there is resistance], but we are not there yet."

Mr. Arias said that reports showed that yields are well down on many fields leading to this demand-exceeds-supply situation. The strong Iceberg lettuce market is spilling over to the other lettuce varieties as processors are changing their blends for bagged lettuce, and consumers are changing their buying habits. "Romaine was at $20-$22 today [Jan. 19], and the leaf items are also strong," he said. "Red leaf was $13-$16. Only green leaf was lagging behind in single digits -- around $8 -- but that market is also showing signs of strengthening."

Several Western grower-shippers were communicating the problem to their customers through e-mail messages and other communication vehicles. Richard Fisher, vice president of commodity sales and foodservice for Dole, sent an e-mail letter Tuesday, Jan. 18, addressed to "Our Commodity Vegetable Customers" explaining the fungal problem by saying that "yields are greatly reduced or entire fields are lost."

The letter went on to say that this year there are "major supply shortages, evident by the increasing costs of commodity lettuce."

Dole promised to monitor the situation, and Mr. Fisher wrote that the company is doing all it can to "return to normal operations as soon as possible."

Salinas, CA-based Taylor Farms had a similar "Lettuce Update" for its customers dated Monday, Jan. 17. That letter explained the disease issues and stated, "This a tremendous hit, and appears to be getting worse on a daily basis. The market is reacting higher by the day. All signs are pointing to a very active Iceberg lettuce market."

The problem is weather related and could work itself out in the next several weeks if the normal warm desert weather returns for a sustained period, according to a researcher very familiar with the disease and the situation.

Mike Matheron, a research scientist in the Division of Plant Pathology & Microbiology at the University of Arizona's Yuma Agricultural Center, said that cold damp weather through much of December has resulted in a very bad case of Sclerotinia this year. He said that the fungal disease is typically present in desert soils and usually attacks the crown of an Iceberg lettuce plant in a field. When it is in its soilborne phase, it is slow moving and fairly manageable, although it does affect yields almost every year.

This year, however, the colder and wetter-than-usual weather has allowed the disease to develop airborne spores, which are spreading throughout fields doing substantial damage to the plants and lettuce leaves, producing many unmarketable heads of lettuce. The good news, according to Dr. Matheron, is that warm weather will prevent the airborne spores from forming and spreading the disease. He added, "I suspect we are now in a period where very few new spores are being formed."

Speaking Wednesday, Jan. 19, he said that temperatures the last several days had been in the mid-80s, which is not conducive to the spread of the disease. "It is not a foregone conclusion that this will be with us until the end of the season," he said. "If we have warm weather, the problem should work its way out."

But he quickly added that more cold weather could exacerbate the problem once again.

Mr. Arias of Coastline said that the grower-shipper community is expecting the supply shortage to continue at least into February. "We [the industry] are going to be short for at least two weeks and maybe longer," he said Jan. 19.