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Freeze may lead to expensive winter lemon season

WEATHER

Daytime highs in Salinas, CA, were expected to be in the mid- to upper 70s through Oct. 14 before dipping into the upper 60s through Oct. 18. Overnight lows were expected to be in the mid- to low 50s. A high-pressure system is in place over California’s Central Coast and should keep rain away at least through Oct. 18.

In Huron, CA, daytime highs were expected to range in the mid- to upper 80s through Oct. 15 before dipping into the lower 80s through Oct. 18. Overnight lows should be in the mid- to low 50s. The high-pressure system over the Central Coast should keep rain away at least through Oct. 18.

 

DEMAND

Northwest russet and onion shippers were seeing modest to moderate demand. Salinas shippers were expecting demand to rise through late October as Canadian receivers return to the West Coast for supplies. Strawberry shippers were seeing strong demand and limited supplies.

 

TRANSPORTATION & FUEL

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 increased modestly Oct. 12 to $85.55 per barrel, which is 42 percent below the record levels of July 2008. The nationwide average price for a gallon of diesel the week of Oct. 10 was $3.72, or 21 percent higher than a year ago. The average price in California for a gallon of diesel was $3.98 — 24 percent higher than last year.

 

ICEBERG LETTUCE

A strong winter-like storm hit California’s Central Coast Oct. 4-5 bringing cold temperatures and rain. Daytime highs briefly fell from the low 70s into the upper 50s, and rain totals ranged from a quarter-inch to a half-inch. Clear skies and warmer temperatures have since returned to Salinas and Santa Maria, CA. The overall sense is the unusually strong storm may have a negative effect on the quality of the last remaining lettuce fields.

Prior to the rain, some Salinas shippers were as many as five days ahead of their harvest schedule and were becoming concerned that the transition to Huron in mid-October would not be seamless. The rain hit, and now shippers are worried that the storm may revitalize mildew issues and possibly reduce yields. The rain likely will result in some pinking as well as discoloration following bruising.

The combination of these issues may present a challenge just as the transition from Salinas to Huron begins and Canadian receivers return to the West Coast for supplies after buying local regional product the past three months.

The first Huron lettuce was harvested Oct. 12, and most shippers expected to begin the week of Oct. 17. All Huron shippers should be harvesting by the week of Oct. 24. Experienced buyers know the brief Huron deal can be dicey and a variety of problems can occur.

The near-term lettuce market has some of the key ingredients needed for a seller’s market: Quality may become a concern and demand is on the verge of increasing. It appears that the long stretch of very reasonable lettuce prices may soon come to an end.

 

LEAF LETTUCE

The cold temperatures and rain that hit the Salinas Valley and Huron Oct. 4-5 could possibly reshape the near-term leaf markets. The rain reintroduced an environment ripe for mildew, which had been an issue through much of the summer season. Romaine yields may fall just as Canadian customers return to the West Coast for supplies. It would not be a total surprise to see higher Romaine prices the week of Oct. 17 or Oct. 24. Green leaf prices likely will ride the coattails of the 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 weeks of Oct. 17 or Oct. 24, then move to the desert the weeks of Nov. 7 or Nov. 14.

 

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

The strong, early-season storm that brought cold temperatures and rain to California’s Central Coast proved to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience to local broccoli shippers. Clear skies and warm temperatures have since returned, and excellent quality and reasonable pricing were expected to prevail heading into the week of Oct. 17.

Looking ahead, the Central Valley autumn crop should start in the next week or two, and the desert season should begin in early November.

 

CELERY

Shippers in the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria continue to have 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 concludes. California shippers have ample supplies of high-quality celery and welcome 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. 17. Looking down range, new-crop celery from Oxnard, CA, was expected to begin in mid-November.

 

STRAWBERRIES

The unseasonably cold temperatures and rain that descended upon California’s Central Coast Oct. 4-5 delivered a late-season blow to the Salinas and Watsonville, CA, strawberry deals. Growers said that this strong winter-like storm greatly reduced production and might soon force the conclusion to the local berry season.

The autumn strawberry crop in Oxnarad, CA, was expected to continue to increase production through October and eventually peak in early to mid-November. Oxnard is not in position to compensate for the rain-induced decline in Salinas and Watsonville.

The strawberry market has increased noticeably since the recent rain and was expected to push higher heading into the week of Oct. 17. Buyers can expect limited quantities of expensive strawberries heading into mid- and late October.

Looking down range, Mexican berries were expected to be available for shipment from Yuma by Thanksgiving.

 

RUSSETS

Early-season cold temperatures and rain are delaying the conclusion of Idaho’s russet harvest. The unusual weather was exemplified Oct. 6 in Idaho Falls, when the area was briefly blanketed with a layer of heavy, wet snow. As of Oct. 11, approximately 25-30 percent of Idaho’s russet crop was yet to be harvested and put in storage. The harvest is far behind schedule and the threat of a frost increases with each passing day.

The weather through the balance of October will greatly influence the 2011-12 russet market from Idaho, Washington state and Colorado. This market has the potential to quickly turn higher with very little, if any, warning.

For now, the carton market is fairly steady near current levels. This is a good time for buyers to load extra product and get ahead of their inventories because the carton market is very reasonable with little downside risk. Truck availability is very limited, and buyers are highly encouraged to plan well ahead and load trucks as they become available.

 

ONIONS

One-third to one-half of the onion crop in Ontario, OR, has yet to be harvested. The crop is late due to a cool growing period and has been further delayed by early-season rains. Cool temperatures and dry skies were forecast through Tuesday, Oct. 18.

A major shipper in Ontario, OR, recently stated, “It’s becoming clear that this year’s harvest will push into late October and/or early November. Our harvest has not stretched this late in 30 years. More delays at this point only increase the likelihood of a frost and the negative consequences it brings. At the risk of stating the obvious, our onion district is in a perilous situation. Our storage crop will be greatly influenced over the next 14 to 21 days.”

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. Washington state jumbo yellows are only 40-50 percent over 3.5 inches in diameter. 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. The onion market has the potential to quickly turn higher with very little, if any, warning. Truck availability is very limited, and buyers should plan well ahead and load trucks as they become available.

 

ORANGES

The rain that hit California’s Central Valley Oct. 4-5 is gone, and sunny skies with warmer temperatures have returned. 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 desired. 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 were expected to be available by the week of Nov. 7.

 

LEMONS

The rain that hit California’s Central Valley Oct. 4-5 is gone and sunny skies with warmer temperatures have returned to Oxnard and the desert. 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 has recently eased and may adjust further in the near term.

Looking down range, buyers should prepare for an expensive winter lemon season because desert production may be down by as much as half due to the February freeze.

 

MELONS

The majority of shippers have concluded their cantaloupe season, leaving a small handful of shippers with very light production. Cantaloupe supplies should continue to trickle in through Oct. 15, and the last remaining cantaloupes will be heaviest to 9-count. It is very late in the season, and today’s cantaloupes have a distinct green background.

Supplies are subject to availability, and buyers should plan well ahead. The honeydew season concluded the week of Oct. 3. This is the last report on the now-completed West Side melon season.

 

(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)