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Strawberry shippers seeing strong demand

WEATHER

Daytime highs in Yuma, AZ, were expected to be in the mid- to upper 70s through Feb. 12 before easing into the upper 60s beginning Feb. 14. Overnight lows were expected to range in the low to mid-40s. Rain was not in the near-term forecast.

In Oxnard, CA, daytime highs were expected to be in the low 70s through Feb. 10 before falling into the mid-60s through Feb. 14. Overnight lows were predicted to be in the low 50s through Feb. 10 and then drop into the low to mid-40s through Feb. 14. Rain was not in the near-term forecast.

Daytime highs in Bakersfield, CA, were expected to be in the mid- to upper 60s through Feb. 14 with overnight lows in the mid-40s. Rain was not in the near-term forecast.

 

DEMAND

Strawberry shippers were seeing strong demand in advance of Valentine’s Day, while row crop and onion shippers were experiencing light demand. Russet shippers were seeing good bale and moderate carton demand.

 

TRANSPORTATION & FUEL

Trucks are plentiful in California and Arizona, and rates are steady. Crude oil prices increased modestly Feb. 8 to $98.89 per barrel, which is 33 percent below record levels of July 2008. The nationwide average price for a gallon of diesel the week of Feb. 6 was $3.86, which is 10 percent higher than a year ago. The average price in California for a gallon of diesel was $4.13, 11 percent higher than last year.

 

ICEBERG LETTUCE

Iceberg lettuce from the deserts in California and Arizona is free of epidermal peel, and overall quality is excellent. Today’s lettuce offers good weights, color and shelf life upon arrival.

The trend of mild weather over the past several weeks has produced an abundance of lettuce. The near-term forecast in the desert called for daytime highs in the mid- to upper 70s through Feb. 12, before a gradual easing into the upper 60s.

Shippers have been bogged down with excess product since mid- to late January as the mild weather has advanced the maturity of many fields. As one Yuma shipper recently stated, “We’ve faced a wall of lettuce over the past few weeks brought on by ideal growing conditions. It appears production will ease moderately heading into the week of February 13, which may allow modestly higher prices.”

Another shipper added, “We are a week ahead of our harvesting schedule. The near-term forecast calls for more temperate weather into the week of February 13, which means we may wind up harvesting lettuce designed for 10 days later down the road. At this rate, we’ll eventually cut our ourselves into a hole and there may be a shortage of available acreage at the tail end of the desert deal in mid- to late March.”

For now, mid-February remains an excellent time to highlight high-quality Iceberg lettuce at very reasonable prices.

 

LEAF LETTUCE

Leaf lettuces from the California and Arizona deserts are free of epidermal peel and overall quality is excellent. Romaine, Green Leaf, Red Leaf and Butter lettuces offer good color, weights and shelf life upon arrival.

Mild weather through at least Feb. 14 should bring the continuation of high-quality leaf into late February. The Romaine market currently is very reasonable and should remain that way into the week of Feb. 13. This is an excellent time to highlight high-quality leaf lettuces from the Southwest desert.

 

BROCCOLI

Broccoli production has been ample since early January. Supplies were expected to exceed demand into the week of Feb. 13 and likely beyond. Overall quality is excellent. The availability of all packs, including Asian crowns, is good. The near-term market should remain very reasonable, and this remains a good time to highlight broccoli from California and Arizona.

 

CELERY

The long stretch of cold weather during the holidays limited production and created a seller’s market through most of January. The recent trend of warmer weather has increased production in Oxnard and the desert. Mild weather conditions were expected to remain in Oxnard and Yuma through at least Feb. 14.

Stalk sizing has returned to normal and shippers have good availability of the large sizes including 18-count cartons. The market has eased noticeably since late January and was expected to hold steady at current levels heading into the week of Feb. 13. Mid- to late February will be a good time to highlight high-quality celery from California and Arizona.

 

ORANGES

Dry skies and moderate temperatures were expected to continue in California’s Central Valley through Feb. 14. Navel quality is superb and production is running at full capacity.

Color is naturally full with Brix levels between 11 and 12. Packouts are 75 percent fancy and 25 percent choice. Peak sizes are 88s followed by 113s then 72s. Sizing should gradually increase into March. The market is reasonably priced and this remains a good time to highlight Navel oranges from California.

 

LEMONS

Desert lemon production has been down as much as 75 percent this winter season due to the harsh freeze in February 2011. The desert lemon season started this past October instead of early September, and is concluding now instead of late March. Yuma packingsheds are done for the season while Coachella was expected to continue offering modest supplies into the week of Feb. 13. This early conclusion should stabilize the market and/or push prices moderately higher. Trucks will have to load lemons in Oxnard or the Central Valley once all shippers are done in the desert.

 

RUSSETS

Consumption of russets by processors has always been noticeably larger than by the fresh industry, hence processor purchasing habits have a significant influence on the price of fresh russets paid by foodservice distributors and retail outlets.

Processors like to keep a 60-day supply of russets on hand, and they started this season with only 20 days. Processor demand has been above normal since the autumn as they build their supply base.

As an industry, processors are secretive and do not disclose their near-, mid- or long-term needs. Fresh shippers can only speculate, and the consensus is that processors will procure a substantial one-time purchase of open market russets. But when? Tomorrow? Next month? Late spring? The exact timing is unknown, but the rumor of a pending purchase has created a bullish undertone in the fresh russet market.

Idaho russet supplies in storage are down 10-15 percent from the 10-year average. Combine this shortfall with the speculation about stronger processor demand, and the result is an increasing likelihood of rising prices heading into in the spring. Idaho packingsheds are slowly but surely switching from Norkotahs to Burbanks, which have a smaller size profile. As a result, prices of the larger carton counts will rise faster when the general market eventually pushes higher.

Shippers were experiencing strong retail bale demand for February’s Potato Lover’s Month. For now, the carton market should hold steady heading into late February. The consensus among shippers is that the carton market will push higher beginning in March.

 

ONIONS

Autumn growing conditions for the 2011 Northwest onion crop were well chronicled. The crop was delayed by cool temperatures through the early and mid portions of the growing season. Cold temperatures returned during the harvest accompanied by four different rain events. The harvest, which was completed in early November, was one of the latest in the past 30 years and growers were terribly concerned about the storageability of the crop.

The growing conditions this past autumn pointed to high shrink rates coming out of storage during the winter months. There was a widely held belief that a strong seller’s market would begin in January or February. To everyone’s surprise, shrink rates remain above normal and packout percentages are 5-7 percent above the historical average of 75 percent No. 1s.

The current onion market is so low that the price of most processor contracts is above today’s open market. Heavy supplies of Mexican onions crossing into south Texas are adding pressure to a market that is already battling strong headwinds.

The market is expected to remain steady at current levels heading into late February. Overall quality from storage is strong and prices don’t get much lower. This is a great time to highlight onions from the Pacific Northwest.

 

Bill Armstrong is a self-employed produce broker who operates Armstrong Marketing in Salinas, CA. He may be reached by phone at 888/484-0800 or by e-mail at ArmstrongMarketing@-comcast.net.