California lettuce growers feel the heat - The Packer

California lettuce growers feel the heat

05/24/2012 08:37:00 AM
Mike Hornick

Mike Hornick, Staff WriterIn a leafy greens market that’s raked them over the coals, Salinas Valley grower-shippers might as well end May by tossing their hearts on the grill for Memorial Day weekend.

Romaine hearts, that is.

Tasty stuff, if the backyard cook knows what he’s doing.

Mark Adamek, general manager for romaine, mixed leaf and Artisan production for Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle, naturally favors the company’s Artisan romaine for grilling.

“I cut it in half like a wedge and put it on medium hot coals until the lettuce starts to become translucent,” he said.

“If you see singe marks on the outer leaves, flip it over and add olive oil and whatever stinky cheese you like. Asiago, gorgonzola or feta. Some make it a meal by putting sliced steak on top.”

As an unofficial kickoff to summer, Memorial Day offers a reason — or an excuse — to celebrate. But for lettuce growers there’s been little to cheer, though iceberg is showing signs of life.

“It’s a pretty soft market,” Adamek said May 22.

“Supply exceeds demand. We need some of our retail customers to promote to get this thing off the ground. I believe the industry overplanted, and we’re starting to compete with the homegrown deals in the East.”

The homegrown action now is mostly in Quebec, with some production happening in New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan. Barring catastrophic weather elsewhere, California lettuce might be waiting until school starts up in the fall for its next big push.

Iceberg holds steady

Iceberg may buck the trend.

“From May 14 onward we’ve been in double-digit territory on iceberg,” said Mark McBride, sales manager for Salinas-based Coastline Produce.

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen a market in the $10-12 range.”

“Some of the processors who were a bit light tiptoed over the line to buy some acreage from the commodity side,” McBride said.

“Last week, but less so now, overall head size was smaller on the majority of acres and that reduces yield or pounds per acre. That’s straightening out, but our good demand continues.”

Shipping point prices for Salinas iceberg in film-lined 24-count cartons ran $10-12.45 on May 21, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s still well below year-ago, weather-related prices of $17-21.

At home, McBride also likes a lettuce wedge, but favors iceberg and skips the grill.

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