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New-crop russet production increases in Idaho, Washington and Colorado

WEATHER

Daytime temperatures in Salinas, CA, remained in the low 60s through Sept. 16 then were expected to rise into the low 70s by early the following week. Overnight lows should range in the low to mid-50s. Patchy morning fog and sunny afternoons should continue through Sept. 20.

In Mendota, CA, daytime temperatures were forecast to drop briefly into the low 80s Sept. 16-18 before returning to the low 90s Sept. 19.

Overnight lows are dropping and should range in the upper 50s to 60.

 

TRANSPORTATION & FUEL

Truck availability on the West Coast is adequate, and freight rates should begin to ease in late September. The price of crude oil increased $1.37 Sept. 14 to $88.84 per barrel, which is 40 percent below record levels of July 2008. The nationwide average price for a gallon of diesel the week of Sept. 12 was $3.86, 31 percent higher than one year ago. The average price in California for a gallon of diesel is $4.07, 29 percent higher than last year.

 

ICEBERG LETTUCE

Lettuce acreage in the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria is purposely reduced during the summer months because of the competition from regional growing deals in Canada and back East. There is also strong competition for retail space from melons, grapes and soft fruit.

The chronic pattern of morning fog followed by sunny afternoons in the Salinas Valley has produced an environment ripe for mildew. Lettuce fields continue to suffer varying degrees of mildew. In some cases, growers have been forced to disc entire fields due to quality. Harvest crews are forced to slow their pace and remove affected leaves, which can result in smaller heads and lighter weights. Shippers can also combat the mildew by harvesting lettuce three to five days early to ensure healthy, clean lettuce. Buyers should fully expect these trends to continue through September.

Light lettuce demand over the past weeks has overshadowed most production issues. Lettuce production heading into the week of Sept. 19 was expected to remain ample and keep the near-term market at very reasonable levels. Looking down range, the lettuce harvest will start in Huron, CA, Oct. 20 and move to Yuma, AZ, in mid-November.

 

LEAF LETTUCE

Summer plantings along California’s Central Coast are purposely down and the persistent fog pattern continues to cause mildew issues, particularly in Romaine lettuce. The net result is lower yields and lighter production. Romaine prices have increased over the past month as shippers push the market higher.

Shippers say demand is beginning to shift away from the regional East Coast deals and to the West Coast. California prices will rise in proportion to the swing back to the West Coast for leaf lettuce. Buyers should expect additional Romaine price increases and higher green leaf prices in the second half of September.

 

BROCCOLI

Regional supplies will remain available in Canada and the Northeast into mid-October or mid-November. The exact timing depends on the severity or mildness of the local autumn season. California shippers say demand will remain moderate as long as regional supplies remain a viable alternative.

Quality from the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria is excellent, and the market was expected to remain steady at current levels heading into the week of Sept. 19.

 

CELERY

Salinas Valley and Santa Maria shippers continue to offer ample supplies of high-quality celery. The size profile remains heaviest to 24s followed by 30s. A two-tier market exists in California as Santa Maria shippers attempt to lure orders and trucks away from Salinas.

The Michigan celery deal should compete with California for U.S. market share into early or mid-October. The combined supply from Michigan and California currently outweighs demand and has created very reasonable prices. The market is expected to remain steady heading into the week of Sept. 19.

Looking down range, new-crop celery from Oxnard, CA, will begin in mid-November.

 

STRAWBERRIES

September is proving to be a procurement challenge for buyers. The transition from Salinas to Oxnard is about to start and will soon offer improved overall supplies.

Salinas shippers foresee modestly better supplies beginning Sept. 16 and lasting through the balance of the month. The Oxnard autumn crop is getting underway and should offer good volume starting the week of Sept. 26. The current market is expensive and projected to hold steady into the week of Sept. 19.

A noticeable quality variance continues in the Salinas Valley, and the better fruit is commanding a premium. Buyers must be diligent and select the hardier lots, which can arrive on the East Coast with adequate shelf life. Receivers are encouraged not to get long despite the forecast of rising prices.

 

RUSSETS

New-crop russet production is increasing in Idaho, Washington state and Colorado, and russet operations are busy harvesting, packing and storing. Shippers currently have excess capacity because growers always plant more than they can store. Today’s improved availability is being met by steady and moderate demand.

The carton market is in the process of adjusting lower and will hopefully establish a new stable trading level in the near term.

Test diggings in Idaho suggest sizing has caught up over the past two weeks, but remains moderately below normal. Also, test yields are below the past few seasons.

The Northwest growing season remains somewhat behind schedule. Growers in Idaho have delayed the vine-kill by as much as 10 days in order to gain additional size. This risky tactic can work wonders as long as russet fields are not confronted by an autumn freeze in mid-October. The old adage is to have the crop in storage by Oct. 15.

Only time will tell if the current crop matures and offers good sizing or suffers the ill effects of an untimely autumn frost.

 

ONIONS

The onion transition to the greater Northwest is complete. Washington state, Oregon and Idaho shippers are busy harvesting, packing and storing onions. Utah shippers are expected to become a market factor the week of Sept. 19.

Shippers were seeing moderate demand on jumbo yellows and jumbo reds. Early-season quality is excellent and today’s onions offer ample shelf life after delivery.

Jumbo yellow onions from Ontario, OR, are running as large as 95 percent 3.5 inches and larger in diameter. The yellow and red markets are reasonably priced and were expected to hold steady near current levels heading into the week of Sept. 19.

Historically, the Ontario, OR, onion crop is harvested and in storage by Sept. 30. This year, the crop is late and only 50 percent of the crop is projected to be in storage at the end of September. A whopping 80 percent of the crop is still green and requires a lot more curing. This concerns shippers because improperly cured onions can present quality concerns in storage. This year, growers are forced to keep onions in the field deeper into October, which increases the possibility of an early autumn rain or frost.

The availability of trucks is currently tight, and buyers should plan ahead and secure transportation a few days in advance of loading.

 

ORANGES

California’s Central Valley has experienced one of the cooler growing summers in recent memory followed by hot temperatures since late August. As a result, today’s oranges show varying degrees of softness.

The fruit looks good upon arrival, but it may break down faster than expected. To make matters worse, the California growing region experienced isolated rain and widespread humidity Sept. 6-12.

Today’s fruit can be weak and will stay as such through the remainder of the Valencia season, which ends in late October. The answer is new-crop Navels, but they will not be available until the week of Nov. 7.

 

LEMONS

California continues to offer adequate lemon supplies and a wide array of sizes from Oxnard. It is late season and the percentage of Choice grade fruit continues to rise. Quality is expected to improve the week of Sept. 26 with the start of new-crop lemons in the desert.

Buyers should prepare for an expensive winter lemon season because desert production may be down as much as 50 percent due to the February freeze.

 

MELONS

Autumn is quickly approaching, bringing shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures. Production is well below the season’s peak, which took place the week of Aug. 22. Shippers who packed 25,000 to 30,000 cartons of cantaloupe a day in late August are down to 10,000 to 12,000 cartons per day.

Not all shippers have a full array of sizes. Some shippers are heavy to the mid sizes while others have light supplies across the board. Production was expected to hold near current levels into the week of Sept. 19 before declining during the latter part of the month.

A Mendota cantaloupe sales manager recently stated, “Cantaloupes are tan with a distinct green cast. Despite the green cast, today’s fruit continues to offer excellent eating quality. Cantaloupe varieties harvested in mid- to late September are designed to maintain season sugars and have Brix between 10 and 12.”

 

(Bill Armstrong is a self-employed produce broker who operates Armstrong Marketing in Salinas, CA. His column appears here every Wednesday afternoon/Thursday morning. He may be reached by phone at 888/484-0800 or at ArmstrongMarketing@comcast.net)