Salinas Valley lettuce shippers were expecting supplies to be ample with good quality heading into the week of Oct. 3. Shippers continue to harvest as many as five days ahead of schedule to ensure clean lettuce with good shelf life. Entering fields a few days early is resulting in the occasional lightweight carton and/or puffy head. All in all, quality is strong with good color and shelf life after delivery. Lettuce prices have been very reasonable for weeks and little change was expected heading into early October.
The next chance of market volatility will occur in mid-October, when the lettuce harvest transitions from Salinas to Huron in the Central Valley.
Veteran buyers know from experience that Huron presents a different set of challenges. For starters, Huron lettuce fields have endured the summer heat. Quality can look good a few days prior to harvest then change quickly without notice. Trucks will be stressed because they will continue to load mix vegetables and value-added produce in Salinas, then drive three hours to Huron for lettuce. Delays at coolers can result in an extra day of loading and tardy deliveries back East.
The autumn lettuce crop in Huron, CA, is expected to start the week of Oct. 17 and should last three to four weeks. The desert lettuce season in Yuma, AZ, will start in early to mid-November.
As with Iceberg lettuce, little change is expected until Huron starts in mid-October. Salinas Valley leaf quality has improved and currently offers good color, weight and shelf life. Salinas shippers expect steady supplies and markets heading into early October.
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 items. This likely will coincide with the start of Huron and increase the possibility of market volatility.
The leaf market during the weeks of Oct. 3 and Oct. 10 should remain reasonable and uneventful. The move to Huron in mid-October often presents logistical challenges, which can leads to higher markets. Looking down range, the Yuma leaf season will start in early to mid-November.
Regional supplies are expected to remain available in the Northeast and Canada through October and into mid-November. The exact timing depends on the severity or mildness of the local autumn season. California shippers expect demand to remain moderate as long as regional supplies are a viable alternative.
Quality from the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria is excellent. The size profile is once again changing, and near-term Asian crown supplies are expected to be below average. The bunch 14-count market should remain steady and reasonable heading into the week of Oct. 3. Looking down range, the Central Valley autumn crop will start in mid-October, and the desert season 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 was expected to remain steady heading into the week of Oct. 3. Looking down range, new-crop celery from Oxnard, CA, should begin in mid-November.
The West Coast strawberry deal will soon begin its autumn transition from Salinas to Oxnard. The Oxnard strawberry harvest was expected to start Sept. 30, climb through the month of October and peak in mid-November. Production from Salinas and Watsonville will continue to fade into mid-October. Oxnard will soon offer the better quality with larger berry sizing and longer shelf life.
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.
The near-term strawberry market may be influenced by weather. There was a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms in Oxnard Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. As well, there was a slight chance of rain showers in the Salinas Valley Oct. 4. Assuming the rain did not occur, the strawberry market was expected to hold steady or ease modestly heading into the week of Oct. 3. Looking down range, Mexican berries will be available for shipment from Yuma, AZ, by Thanksgiving.
New-crop russet production continues to peak in Idaho, Washington and Colorado. Russet operations are extremely busy harvesting, packing and storing. The harvest started late, which means there is a narrow window to harvest and store the crop. Frankly, some shippers are panicking due to excess supply, and the result is a sloppy and unstable market. The market is expected to remain in this state of flux into mid- or late October.
The cool spring and summer spooked growers, who feared that the crop would be undersized. Many growers felt there was no choice but to delay the kill in hopes of gaining additional size. This tactic worked, and shippers throughout the Northwest now have ample supplies heavy to the large cartons.
The problem is that the Idaho harvest is behind schedule, and growers need three more weeks (or longer) to conclude the harvest and storage. Growers are faced with the increasing possibility of a freeze in mid-October. The old adage is the russet crop needs to be harvested and put in storage by Oct. 15 or a grower runs the risk of a freeze. Only time will tell if the late crop suffers the ill effects of an untimely autumn frost.
Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah shippers are busy harvesting, packing and storing onions. Northwest 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 as much as 90 percent 3.5-inches and larger in diameter. Washington 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. By mid-September, a whopping 80 percent of the crop was still green and required a lot more curing. That concerns shippers because improperly cured onions can present quality concerns in storage. That forces growers to keep onions in the field deeper into October and run the risk of an early-autumn rain or frost. Only time will tell if the harvest and storage is complete before cold weather arrives.
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 cooler growing summers in recent memory followed by hot temperatures beginning in late August. It is late in the Valencia season and today’s fruit may suffer varying degrees of softness. Oranges will look good upon arrival, but the shelf life may be shorter than expected.
Adding to the difficulty, shippers have very limited supplies of 113s and 138s and are pushing foodservice buyers into 88s. The long-term answer is new-crop Navels, which will be available in late October or early November. The near-term weather forecast called for a 20 percent chance of rain Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 in the Central Valley, Oxnard and in the desert.
Autumn has arrived, bringing shortened daylight hours and cooler temperatures. Melon production is far below the late-August peak and will continue to fade into early October. Shippers have improved percentages of the big cantaloupes and are peaking on 9s followed by 12s then 15s. Honeydews are small and peaking on 8s and 9s.
The near-term weather forecast called for a 20 percent chance of rain Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Assuming the rain did not occur, the cantaloupe season should continue into the week of Oct. 17. Rain or shine, the honeydew season is short-lived and will conclude the first week of October.
Late-season cantaloupes are tan with a distinct green background. Despite the green cast, today’s fruit offers excellent eating quality. Late-season cantaloupe varieties are designed to maintain sugar levels with Brix between 10 to 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 )