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