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Supply gap coming for California vegetables

Denny Donovan, sales manager at Fresh Kist Produce LLC in Santa Maria, CA, said everyone in the vegetable production business in California knows there is a gap coming, but just when it is going to hit appears to be a moving target.

For the better part of a week in early December, extremely cold temperatures gripped much of the state, including the Central Coast, the Salinas Valley and the San Joaquin Valley.

“On December 6, the temperatures here in Santa Maria got as low as 21 degrees,” Donovan said. “I’ve never seen it that low.”

The devastation of the state’s citrus crop ($440 million in damages) has been well documented. What has been harder to quantify is what the freeze did to the state’s vegetable crops.

In December, the production of many of the vegetables is centered in the desert regions of both California and Arizona, which were spared the cold weather. But cole crops are grown in Central California and the Salinas Valley all year round, and celery is a 12-month mainstay from Oxnard to Oceano.

The cold weather knocked out some plants in their early stages and delayed plantings for about a week. About 90 to 100 days later, one would expect to see a gap, and that is where things stand right now.

“For the last couple of weeks we have been predicting lighter supplies in broccoli, cauliflower and celery, but it hasn’t happened,” Donovan said. “At some point we are going to harvest ourselves into a gap.”

Donovan said warmer-than-usual weather through much of the growing season for those mid-December plantings has delayed the gap, but it is going to happen eventually.

Planting and growing vegetables on a year-round basis is a science, with a heavy dose of Mother Nature mixed in. Every week, grower-shippers put seeds or transplants in the ground anticipating a particular harvest level three months or so later when that particular crop should be harvested. Good weather can bring some crops in early, which has apparently happened to cover the gap expected from the December freeze time period. But at some point, there is going to be a shortage of production.

Tanimura & Antle, based in Salinas, CA, has alluded to the same thing in its regular Straight Talk crop analysis newsletter.

In its supply forecast through March 15, T&A predicted lower volumes on broccoli and cauliflower but noted that its production in Salinas is two to three weeks ahead of schedule. The newsletter noted that the “market should improve” for both of those crops.

Dick Ramsey, vice president of broccoli operations for Mann Packing Co. in Salinas, is expecting a gap in that crop that could last as long as four weeks.

Talking to The Produce News March 4, he said as much as 1,200 acres of broccoli in California were affected by the December freeze. He believes the gap will hit within a couple of weeks and a hot market will follow.

A hot or even lukewarm vegetable market has been hard to find all winter. The warm weather in California and Arizona has increased yields, leading to better-than-average production.

At the same time, severe winter weather throughout much of the rest of the country has curtailed demand for many vegetable items. When it is 15 degrees below zero outside, not too many people run to the store looking for a crisp, cold salad.

Some of the cooking vegetables have done slightly better, but it has been a bleak winter as far as market price goes.

Besides dreaming of warm weather in the East, the late-February Tanimura & Antle newsletter sums up the thoughts of drought-stricken California growers pretty well: “We are all praying for big March rains that will provide much needed water and higher prices. One thing is for sure, the markets can only go up.”