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Hot lettuce market expected to cool with warmer weather

by Tim Linden | March 10, 2011

The lettuce market remained hot for most varieties the week of March 6-13, but there were signs that volume would be increasing in the next couple of weeks, which should bring prices down.

Intermittent cold, wet weather over the past several months and disease problems related specifically to Iceberg lettuce combined to create a demand-exceeds-supply situation for most of the past three months.

That same weather took its toll on many different vegetable items, with high prices being the norm rather than the exception since the beginning of the year. On March 9, as grower-shippers were predicting an increase in supplies over the next week or two, the market remained hot.

Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing for The Nunes Co. in Salinas, CA, told The Produce News that wrapped Iceberg lettuce was selling for about $35 per carton, while Romaine was in the $40-45 range. Celery dropped to $20 per carton, while broccoli and cauliflower were deals in the low teens.

Mr. Seeley said that warm weather had returned to the Yuma, AZ, area, which is the main production district at this time of year for lettuce and other vegetables.

“We should see an improvement in both volume and quality by this time next week,” Mr. Seeley told The Produce News March 9.

He said that warm weather should result in greater yields per acre and bring the supply picture back to normal ranges.

For the past several months, the cold has created supply issues, which tend to feed on themselves. With high prices and orders piling up, fields tend to be cut early, which reduces yields even further.

Bob Ligon, lettuce product manager for Growers Express LLC in Salinas, CA, concurred with Mr. Seeley’s viewpoint. “We expect the market to come down [the week of March 21] as supplies increase, and then there could be a bit of a bump in supplies the following week [of March 28],” he said.

Mr. Ligon added that Growers Express is scheduled to begin harvesting in Huron in California’s San Joaquin Valley the week of March 28, which will also be the firm’s final scheduled week of harvesting in Yuma.

“There should be a small overlap, which could result in an increase in supplies that week, and then drop down a bit the following week [of April 2],” he said.

Mr. Ligon predicted that while prices will come off these very high levels, they should remain strong for the foreseeable future as production shifts from the desert to the San Joaquin Valley.

However, he said that with most of the Huron production still a month away from harvest, it was too early to predict how those fields will turn out. Warm weather through the rest of March and into April could result in strong supplies. But the reverse is also true.

Typically, the Huron district is the major production area through April as the fields in the coastal California regions are maturing and warming up with the spring weather. By May, harvest of many of the vegetable crops will switch to the fertile valleys stretching from Oxnard to Salinas.

Mr. Seeley said that for some crops that are hardier in nature — notably broccoli and cauliflower — production from the Salinas Valley will begin in the middle of March, thus further increasing supplies and bringing the market price down.