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Celery leads parade of hot western crops

by Tim Linden | February 10, 2011
Winter weather in one way or another has decreased supplies on a variety of crops coming from the West, causing prices to reach very lofty levels.
Leading the parade is celery, which was in the $35-$40 range the week of Feb. 6-13, but there are also very strong markets on Iceberg, Romaine, leaf items and strawberries.
David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, CA, said that the strong celery market has been in the making for almost two months. He said that the Oxnard district, which is the top domestic source at this time of year, was hit with a lot of rain in December that caused the current light supplies. A week of heavy rains caused some quality issues and reduced yields for the past six weeks.

He said that all through January, growers left a lot of production in the field and have been cutting ahead ever since to make up.

"We are all cutting fields that should be cut in a week or 10 days," he said. “The celery is small and lightweight, and that means the yields are light.”

He said that prices might come down a bit in the next week or two but that the market should remain strong for at least several weeks.

“We are expecting some rain [the week of Feb. 14-20], which is the best thing for celery,” said Mr. Cook. “If we get a good rain followed by warm weather, we should get some size and weight back.”

Mr. Cook said that the wet weather also has caused problems for lettuce growers in the California and Arizona desert regions as well as in coastal California. The result is a demand-exceeds-supply situation for most of the lettuce items.

According to the U.S. Market News Service, all lettuces are ranging in price from the high teens to the low $20s.

“Romaine supplies are pretty good and in better shape than the others, but the price is still in the $20s,” Mr. Cook said.

Desert lettuce was hit with disease problems in December because of the cold and wet weather. Those issues have mostly been resolved, but high January prices caused many growers to cut ahead to fill orders, thus exacerbating the supply situation. Some are predicting that it will be March before supply and demand are back into sync.

A warm, dry January has helped the California strawberry crop come on, but the market price is still holding up pretty well.

Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, said that the market was in the $18-$20 range early in the week of Feb. 7 and should stay fairly strong for the foreseeable future.

“We are getting good demand for the upcoming [Valentine's Day] holiday,” she said Feb. 9. “And the supplies aren’t that heavy.”

Ms. Jewell said that many growers have switched to what she called “day- neutral varieties” in recent years, which do not provide the spike in volume that earlier varieties do when temperatures rise. “We see a longer, slower increase in volume over the course of the season,” she said.

Mr. Cook said that what was helping to create the demand for strawberries is a lack of competition for retail promotional space by other produce items.

“There are a lot of items that are a mess right now because of the rain in California, the cold weather in Mexico and other weather problems around the country,” said Mr. Cook. “Retailers are looking for something to promote, and strawberries fit the bill. They are colorful and sexy, and volume is starting to increase.”

Because of the good demand, the Deardorff executive believes that the strawberry market will remain strong even as volume increases over the next several weeks.

“We might see the market come off a bit, but demand should stay right there with it,” he said.