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Already expensive strawberries to push higher through early October


Daytime temperatures in Salinas, CA, will briefly remain in the mid-70s through Sept. 23 then fade into the upper 60s to low 70s through September 27. Overnight lows will range in the low to mid-50s. Patchy morning fog and sunny afternoons will continue through Sept. 27.

In Mendota, CA, Daytime temperatures will briefly remain in the mid- to upper 90s through Sept. 24 then drop into the upper 80s by Sept. 26. Overnight lows will drop from the mid-60s to upper 50s beginning Sept. 24.



Strawberry shippers report good demand for the best lots and labels. Salinas row-crop shippers report continued good demand for romaine lettuce. Northwest shippers report moderate to light demand on new-crop onions and russets.


Transportation & Fuel

Truck availability on the West Coast is adequate. Freight rates should begin to ease in early October. The availability of trucks in the Northwest is very limited and buyers should plan well ahead.

Crude oil prices fell modestly Sept. 21 to $86.27 per barrel, which is 41 percent below record levels of July 2008. The nationwide average price for a gallon of diesel the week of Sept. 19 is $3.83 and 29 percent higher than one year ago. The average price in California for a gallon of diesel is $4.06, 29 percent higher than last year.


Iceberg lettuce

Salinas Valley lettuce shippers expect supplies to be ample with good quality heading into early October. Several shippers are harvesting lettuce fields as many as five days ahead of schedule to ensure clean lettuce with good shelf life. Entering fields a few days early may result in the occasional puffy head, light-weight carton or both.

Lettuce prices have been very reasonable for several weeks, and little change is expected heading into the week of Sept. 26. Looking down range, the autumn lettuce crop in Huron, CA, will start the week of Oct. 17 and is expected to only last three weeks. The desert lettuce season in Yuma, AZ, will start in early to mid-November.


Leaf Lettuce

The persistent summer fog in the Salinas Valley has produced an environment conducive to mildew. Romaine yields have been negatively affected through much of August and September. The romaine market has been noticeably higher than green leaf, red leaf and butter lettuce since mid-August. Salinas Valley shippers expect steady supplies and markets through the balance of September.

West Coast acreage will soon increase in anticipation of the conclusion of the regional deals and the return of East Coast demand for California leaf. Looking down range, Huron leaf will start in mid-October followed by Yuma in early to mid-November.



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 report that demand will remain moderate as long as regional supplies remain a viable alternative.

Quality from the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria is excellent. The market will remain steady and reasonable heading into the week of Sept. 26. Looking down range, desert broccoli will begin in early November.



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 continues in California as Santa Maria shippers attempt to lure orders and trucks away from Salinas.

The Michigan celery deal will 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. 26. Looking down range, new-crop celery from Oxnard, CA, will begin in mid-November.



The West Coast strawberry deal will soon begin the autumn transition from Salinas to Oxnard. Production from Salinas and Watsonville, CA, will continue to fade into mid-October. Oxnard will begin to offer new-crop strawberries beginning Sept. 28 to Oct. 3. Oxnard will offer the better quality with larger berry sizing and longer shelf life.

The current market is expensive and projected to push higher in late September to early October. 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 to buy manageable quantities. Looking down range, Mexican berries will be available for shipment from Yuma, AZ, by Thanksgiving.



New-crop russet production is peaking in Idaho, Washington State and Colorado. Russet operations are extremely busy harvesting, packing and storing.

Russet prices have adjusted significantly in the past few business days, and the market is struggling mightily to establish a new trading range. One piece of the puzzle is several key sheds are running to cover a large Wal Mart poly ad, which is generating a heavy surplus of cartons. An Idaho shipper recently stated, "This market is like trying to catch a falling knife ... it's in a free fall. I've seen nothing like this in my 39 years of industry experience. Rollers are everywhere, and receivers who can handle the volume can basically name their price. Hopefully the market will begin to gain traction near current levels."

The cool spring and summer spooked growers and made them think the crop would be undersized. Many growers felt there was no choice but delay the kill in hopes of gaining additional size. This risky tactic can work wonders as long as the 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.



Washington State, Oregon and Idaho shippers are busy harvesting, packing and storing onions. Utah shippers will become a market factor a bit later in September.

Northwest shippers report 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 as large as 95 percent 3.5 inches and larger in diameter. Washington State jumbo yellows are closer to 50 percent over 3.5 inches. The yellow and red markets are attractively priced and expected to hold fairly steady heading into early October.

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. As of mid-September, a whopping 80 percent of the crop was still green and required a lot more curing. This concerns shippers because improperly cured onions can present quality concerns in storage. This forces growers to keep onions in the field deeper into October and run the risk of an early Autumn rain or frost.

The availability of trucks is very limited. Buyers should plan ahead and secure transportation a few days in advance of loading. Buyers are encouraged to load trucks as they become available.



California's Central Valley has experienced one of the coolest growing summers in recent memory followed by hot temperatures since late August. The result is that today's oranges may suffer from varying degrees of softness. The oranges will look good upon arrival but the shelf life may be less than normal. Adding to the difficulty, shippers have limited supplies of 113s and 138s, and are steering foodservice buyers into 88s. There seems to be some near-term relief as a few shippers are thankfully packing a late-season Valencia with improved quality. The long-term answer is new-crop Navels, which will be available the week of Nov. 7.



California continues to offer adequate lemon supplies and a wide array of sizes from Oxnard. It's late season, and the percentage of choice-grade fruit is above normal. Quality will 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.



Autumn has arrived, daylight hours continue to shorten and cooler temperatures are expected soon. Melon production is far below the late August peak and will continue to fade into late September. Not all shippers have a full array of sizes ... some shippers are heavier to the mid-sizes while others have light supplies across the board. Receivers in search of large cantaloupes should plan ahead.

A Mendota cantaloupe sales manager recently stated, "Cantaloupes are tan with a distinct green cast. Despite the green cast, today's fruit offers excellent eating quality. Cantaloupe varieties harvested in late September are designed to maintain sugar levels with Brix between 10 and 12." The cantaloupe season will continue until Oct. 10. Honeydew shippers will end their season as early as Sept. 30.

Daytime temperatures in Mendota, CA, will remain in the mid- to upper 90s through Sept. 24 then drop into the mid- to upper 80s. Overnight lows should stay in the mid-60s through Sept. 23 then fall into the mid- to upper 50s.


(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 )