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Winter vegetable deal gets started with great markets

Cauliflower prices have been through the roof and most Western vegetables have had a very good fall season, with growers and shippers alike looking forward to the winter vegetable deal as they anticipate strong pricing will remain the order of the day for at least a while.

"Pepper prices haven't been through the roof," deadpanned Mike Aiton, "but they are on the second floor."

The marketing manager for Prime Time International, the Coachella, CA, firm that specializes in colored peppers, said shippers had a very good fall season. OPENER-Celery-FieldA celery field in the California desert."The markets have been very good with seasonal pricing above average for the f.o.b. prices. We are expecting the holiday demand for Thanksgiving and Christmas to take us through the end of the year and for the good markets to continue."

Aiton said a combination of factors have produced the good results. "Because of the strong local deals, a lot of California shippers cut back for the August-September timeframe. And this year many local areas -- from the Southeast, up the Eastern Seaboard and across into Ohio and Michigan -- got hammered by bad weather. The combination of less planting from us [California] and less yields from the local deal has resulted in less supply and great prices."

He said that Prime Time can track the local business fairly accurately, and this year, it just didn't last as long. "We know we typically lose customers for four to six weeks" in late summer and early fall "and then they come back. This year was different."

Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Boskovich Farms in Oxnard, CA, pointed to the same major factor that have resulted in a very good fall deal. He said the local deals experienced weather problems that caused most of them to end up a bit early, paving the way for higher prices from the West. Speaking on November 1, he said prices had backed off a bit across the board but he was still expecting a pretty good holiday season.

"Over the next two months volume will pick up, but the holiday demand should keep the prices fairly strong," he said.

Widerburg added that there should be crops that will see price spikes during that period just as a regular course of business. It is the winter and winter weather does tend to affect the winter vegetable deals in California, Arizona and Mexico. And he said other factors such as disease can also come into play. As Boskovich was getting ready to begin harvesting its fall celery crop from the Ventura County, CA, area, Widerburg said it looked like early production would be off. He said growers around the country were experiencing a drop off on the early fields that could be as much as 25 percent less than normal.

With a strong celery market already in play, he said that market could remain pretty hot through the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a huge demand period for the item. There are a lot of turkeys that have to be stuffed and celery is a key ingredient.

Ron Berghoefer, vice president of sales and marketing for Santa Barbara Farms LLC in Lompoc, CA, expects it to be a fairly strong winter market for the staple vegetable items, but not crazy hot like it has been this fall. "I think there will be ample supplies but not oversupplies once the desert gets going," he said Nov. 4.

Berghoefer said this should especially be true for Iceberg lettuce, which is his top crop. Santa Barbara Farms also has a celery deal that was just getting started from the Lompoc area. He said his fields look great with no reduction in yields but he has heard that other areas were having some yield issues. Still he expects prices to be strong but not sky high through the holidays.

He felt the same way about cauliflower, stating that while prices have been very high he does expect them to come down and be more in a typical range as the desert production gets underway.

Jay Iverson, vice president of sales and marketing for Salinas, CA-based Greengate Fresh, is a grower-shipper but he comes to the market price discussion from a different angle. Greengate specializes in servicing the hospitality industry so the firm mostly sells bagged lettuce and other staple commodities on a contract price basis. He characterized the high prices and reduced yields during the fall as a "challenge." Greengate had to go the spot market to fill some orders which was not easy. "Most of the contracts do have escalator clauses but it surely wasn't business as usual."

Greengate is scheduled to transition to the Yuma area around the date of this publication, and Iverson is expecting pricing to be more in the typical range by then. "The front end of Yuma looks a little spotty but I think overall there will be enough product to fill demand."

He said the winter demand for lettuce and the other items does drop a bit so presuming the weather cooperates, he believes "there are enough plants to fill the orders."