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Variety of factors push vegetable markets higher

by Tim Linden | April 25, 2011

Numerous factors combined to push some vegetable items to dizzying heights through much of April and some of these items will remain in short supply and at high prices for at least several more weeks.

“There is hardly a red pepper to be found,” said Damon Barkdull, sales representative for Uesugi Farms Inc. in Hollister, CA. “And there is going to be no relief until sometime in late May.”

On Monday, April 18, the U.S. Market News Service did not even quote a price for red peppers since there were virtually none to be found. On the chance that some were available, the price was likely in the neighborhood of $50 per carton.

Yellow peppers were in the same ballpark; green peppers were also in a demand-exceeds-supply situation and commanding $24-$28 per carton.

Mr. Barkdull said that production in the Coachella Valley was just getting underway, so he anticipated that the green pepper price would come down a bit but remain strong even after the Easter (April 24) pull was finished. He said that the Mexican freeze this winter and the slow start in Coachella created the pepper shortage in general and the red shortage in particular.

“The green [pepper] market was good, so many growers [in Mexico] harvested their reds as greens and sold those when the market was hot. That’s why we have no reds right now.”

He added that cold weather has delayed the Coachella harvest. “We are packing today for the first time,” he said April 20, indicating that this was later than usual.

Mr. Barkdull said that the green pepper market should return to a more normal level as Coachella Valley production increases over the next several weeks.

James Paul, who handles asparagus sales for two different companies, said that a demand-exceeds-supply situation also is evident in the asparagus market — and that won’t change any time soon.

“Today [April 20] Market News says the asparagus market is $58 to $60,” Mr. Paul told The Produce News. “I think that is a little high, as shippers are trying to keep the price up for their committed sales. More realistically, it is $54 to $56 for uncommitted product.”

As it was days before Easter and the Easter demand was waning, Mr. Paul said that the market would continue to recede over the next several days.

“But next week you have the East Coast pull for Mother’s Day followed by the West Coast Mother’s Day pull the following week,” he said. “The market will soften a little bit, but I think it will still be in the $48-$52-per-carton range for the next several weeks.”

Mr. Paul, director of sales and marketing for his father’s Stockton, CA, operation — Greg Paul Produce Sales Inc. — and also a sales associate for Calexico, CA-based Altar Produce LLC, which is one of the larger asparagus shippers in the country, said, “Asparagus is my specialty.”

He noted that good Easter demand has played a role in this market, but the real factor is decreased California supplies, which is an ongoing situation 15 years in the making.

“Over the past 15 years, California’s acreage has decreased almost every year, and I don’t see that changing,” he said. “If you plant asparagus, you have to make a 12-year commitment and that’s hard to do for a two-month harvest. I don’t see anybody putting in any new asparagus acreage [in the Stockton area].”

He said the northern San Joaquin Valley district of California fills the spring gap after Mexico’s winter deal winds down and before Washington and central Mexico get going again. By June, Mr. Paul expects asparagus supplies to be plentiful again, but for the next month, those with product should have a pretty good market.

Good prices for several other items, including Romaine, other leaf lettuces and spinach, were a result of both weather issues and Easter demand.

Cold weather and some hail took its toll in the Huron, CA, area causing some decrease in expected supplies as Easter approached. That led to a strong market in the mid- to high teens for many of the leafy green items even as Iceberg lettuce was in fairly good supply.

Shippers, however, were expecting those vegetable markets to drop after the Easter demand abated.