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Lettuce market stays hot, but strawberry supplies are on the rise

by Tim Linden | January 26, 2011
Disease issues continue to plague Western lettuce shippers, but good weather has helped bring the California strawberry crop back to normal levels on a daily basis.

Looking forward, experts are predicting that the lettuce market will remain hot well into February, with many other leaf items following suit with better- than-average prices. But the strawberry market has dropped, and both volume and prices should be moving into promotional territories as February dawns.

Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing for The Nunes Co. in Salinas, CA, said that it appears as if the disease problems and the forward cutting of acreage that has resulted will keep the Iceberg lettuce market strong for the foreseeable future.

"For at least the next week to 10 days, the market will be steady," he said Jan. 25. “And after that, we are expecting a gap at some point in February.” When that gap hits, he said the market could spike even higher.

Mr. Seeley explained that The Nunes Co. — like other grower-shippers — has been cutting ahead to fill orders. “We are about two weeks ahead of schedule,” he said.

Cutting fields before their optimum harvest time tends to reduce yields as the size of the average head is smaller. It also can create a gap in supplies, which the Nunes executive predicted will occur in February. He said that the early cutting has resulted in the increased shipments of 30-count lettuce as opposed to the regular count of 24 heads per carton.

“Today, 24s are in the high teens and low $20s, while 30-count are in the mid- to high teens,” he said.

The disease issue, Sclerotinia, which is typically a soilborne disease, has produced airborne spores this year. Those spores spread rapidly through many fields in Yuma, AZ, in December and early January, greatly reducing yields. The problem was caused by cold, damp weather. While the warmer weather of the last couple of weeks has helped alleviate the disease issue, the effects are lingering.

Mr. Seeley said that Romaine yields have also been affected, so that market is strong and trading in the high teens and low $20s. Processors and consumers alike have changed their salad mix a bit, thus causing the other leaf items to also register strong demand.

Red Leaf was selling in the $12-$15 range the week of Jan. 24-29, while Green Leaf was pushing double digits.

The effects of the heavy December rains in coastal California also continued to affect supplies of broccoli, cauliflower and celery. Broccoli was continuing with its strong market.

“Light and tight,” said Mr. Seeley, characterizing the broccoli market with those two telling words.

Cauliflower prices were sky-high in early January because the rains had limited supplies. The weather also was responsible for bringing a spike in supplies the week of Jan. 24-29, causing the market to drop to single digits per carton. And he said that the celery pricing had a two-tier market.

“There are still some quality issues out of Oxnard [related to earlier rain]. So the celery from there is selling for about $5 less [per carton] than Yuma.” Strawberries are susceptible to rain, and as such supplies from California have been tight since this year's crop began shipping in January. The market has been well over $20 per tray, but finally dropped below that level toward the end of January.

A.G. Kawamura, former California secretary of agriculture who has returned to his farm in Southern California, Orange County Produce in Irvine, CA, said that warm weather over the last couple of weeks has brought the strawberry crop on and held prices down.

“Prices have been dropping for the last week,” he said Jan. 25. “And we expect supplies to continue to improve moving forward.”

His assessment was confirmed by the daily tray count compiled by the California Strawberry Commission. Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the commission, said that as of Jan. 22, California had sent only 772,000 trays to market compared to 2.1 million trays as of the same date last year.

However, shipments during the week of Jan. 16 topped those of a year earlier, and on Jan. 24, 153,000 trays were harvested and shipped. She said that with that type of daily production, the state is closing in on its first 1 million-tray week and it possibly could be the week of Jan. 23-29. If not, it would occur in the next week or two, which is sooner than in 2010, she predicted. In 2009, California had two 1 million-tray weeks in January, but there were none in 2010.

Although California’s strawberry acreage report lists a decline of a half percent this year, Ms. O’Donnell said that is an estimate and by all accounts, shippers are expecting very good volume as the season progresses. Volume should continue to climb on a weekly basis until it hits its peak in late spring and early summer. The largest shipping weeks should top 7 million trays.