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Northwest onion crop is late and in need of mild autumn, but cold temperatures could cause further delay


Northwest russet shippers have been seeing light demand and heavy supplies. Salinas shippers were expecting Canadian customers to return to the West Coast the weeks of Oct. 10 and Oct. 17 for row crop supplies.



The availability of trucks in the Northwest is very limited and buyers should plan well ahead. Truck availability on the West Coast is adequate.

Crude oil prices rose $3.88 on Oct. 5 to $79.55 per barrel, which is 46 percent below record levels of July 2008. The nationwide average price for a gallon of diesel the week of Oct. 3 was $3.75, or 25 percent higher than a year ago. The average price in California for a gallon of diesel is $4, which is 26 percent higher than last year.



A strong winter-like storm hit California’s Central Coast Oct. 4-5, bringing cold temperatures and rain. Daytime highs fell from the low 70s into the upper 50s, and rain totals ranged from a quarter-inch to a half-inch. Shippers fear that this unusually strong storm will reshape the tail end of the Salinas lettuce season.

Prior to the rain, some Salinas shippers were as many as five days ahead of their harvest schedule and were becoming somewhat concerned that the transition to Huron would be seamless. The rain hit and shippers are now concerned that the storm will revitalize mildew issues and reduce overall production.

The rain likely will result in some pinking as well as discoloration following bruising. These problems will present a challenge at a time when shippers expect an increase in demand from Canadian customers who had been buying local product the past three months.

Rain also fell in Huron, CA, which is expected to start its autumn lettuce season the week of Oct. 17. Experienced buyers know that the brief Huron deal can be dicey and unpredictable.

The near-term lettuce market has some of the key ingredients needed for a seller’s market: Quality is becoming a question, demand is on the verge of increasing and the transition from Salinas to Huron may not be seamless. It appears that the long stretch of very reasonable lettuce prices may soon come to an end.



The cold temperatures and rain Oct. 4-5 also could reshape the near-term leaf markets. The rain has reintroduced a ripe environment for mildew, which had been an issue through much of the summer season. Shippers foresee falling Romaine yields just as Canadian customers are expected to return to the West Coast for supplies. Buyers can expect higher Romaine prices the week of Oct. 10 and Oct. 17. Green Leaf prices will ride the coattails of the ascending Romaine market.

Some shippers will continue to offer Salinas leaf supplies into early November before moving directly to Yuma, AZ. Others will transition to Huron the week of Oct. 17, and then move to the desert the week of Nov. 7 or Nov. 14.



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 expect demand to remain moderate as long as regional supplies remain a viable alternative.

The storm that brought cold temperatures and rain Oct. 4-5 should prove to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience to California broccoli shippers. The market was expected to remain fairly steady heading into the week of Oct. 10, and overall quality remains excellent in the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria.

Looking down range, the Central Valley autumn broccoli crop is expected to start in mid-October followed by the desert season 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.

Demand for California celery is building as the Michigan celery deal winds down. California shippers said that they have ample supplies of high-quality celery and are anxious for the return business from regions of the country that relied on Michigan during the summer and early autumn. The market was expected to remain steady heading into the week of Oct. 10. Looking down range, new-crop celery from Oxnard, CA, is expected to begin in mid-November.



The unseasonably cold temperatures and rain that hit California’s Central Coast Oct. 4-5 delivered a late-season blow to the Salinas and Watsonville strawberry deals. Growers said that this strong winter-like storm system might have forced the conclusion to the local berry season. Shippers were assessing the damage Oct. 5 and hoped for some degree of recovery by Oct. 7-10. In any event, local production will continue to fade and overall quality is in question.

Oxnard’s autumn strawberry crop will continue to increase production through October and eventually peak in early to mid-November. Oxnard cannot compensate for the rain-induced decline in Salinas and Watsonville. The strawberry market is quickly rising and there is no relief in the foreseeable future.

Buyers can expect limited quantities of expensive strawberries heading into mid-October. Looking down range, Mexican berries will be available for shipment from Yuma by Thanksgiving.



New-crop russet production continues to peak in Idaho, Washington state and Colorado, and russet operations are extremely busy harvesting, packing and storing. The Idaho harvest is 60-80 percent complete. Rain showers in Idaho over the next few days should have little effect on the harvest and market.

Freezing temperatures and early-season snow are in the near-term forecast for Center, CO, where the harvest is 60 percent complete. Compared to onions, russets are much hardier and can withstand the initial blast of cold autumn temperatures. Colorado and Northwest russet shippers are confident they will finish the harvest and storage by Oct. 15 and have a strong crop.

The cool spring and summer spooked growers into fearing the crop would be undersized. Many growers felt that there was no choice but to delay the kill in hopes of gaining additional size. This tactic worked wonderfully, and shippers throughout the Northwest now have ample carton supplies heavy to the larger sizes.

There is very little, if any, downside risk in the carton market. This is a great time to purchase cartons and get ahead of inventories. Truck availability is very limited, and buyers are highly encouraged to plan well ahead and load trucks as they become available.



The Northwest onion crop is late and growers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah are furiously attempting to play catch-up. By now, 80 percent of the Northwest onion crop should be harvested and put in storage, but the reality is that only 40-50 percent of the harvest is complete.

What growers need is an extended mild autumn with warm, sunny days. Instead, rain and cold temperatures spread over the region Oct. 5-6, and another chance was possible Oct. 10-11. Daytime high temperatures dropped Oct. 5-6 from the recent 80s into the upper 50s. Daytime highs were expected to return to the low 70s. In all, this weather change will likely delay the harvest and storage an additional week.

Predictions now suggest that 80 percent of the crop will not be harvested until the week of Oct. 17. The next two to three weeks represent a critical period that will heavily influence the storage onion market, which will last through March of 2012.

For the moment, the jumbo yellow and red markets are steady. Ontario, OR, offers large jumbo yellows 70-80 percent over 3.5-inches in diameter, while Washington state jumbo yellows are only 40-50 percent. Washington state red onion growers remain swamped with excess production and the market is very reasonable. There is no downside risk in the red market and now is a great time to get ahead of inventories.

Truck availability is very limited. Buyers should plan well ahead and load trucks as they become available.



California’s Central Valley received measurable rainfall Oct. 4, accompanied by much-colder temperatures. Orange growers actually welcome the colder temperatures because they trigger higher color. The rain also will not affect the quality of the fruit hanging on the trees. At worst, the rain may delay the harvest and interrupt availability. Current daytime temperatures have fallen into the mid-60s and were expected to return to the low 80s by Oct. 9.

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 less 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 the week of Nov. 7.



Central Valley shippers now offer new-crop lemons grown and harvested in the desert. Shippers are trucking the lemons in bulk to their Central Valley packing facilities. The market is steady and is expected to hold near current levels heading into mid-October.

Looking down range, 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.



An early-season storm system produced a quarter-inch of rain Oct. 4-5 in Mendota, CA. Assuming dry weather from this point forward, the West Side cantaloupe season will continue into the week of Oct. 17.

Today’s cantaloupes are tan with a distinct green background. The eating quality remains good, and the late-season varieties have Brix levels between 10 and 12. Sizes continue to peak of 9s and 12s followed by a few 15s. The Honeydew season was essentially over before the Oct. 4 rain occurred.


(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 )