Homegrown lettuce falters; buyers turn to CaliforniaSALINAS, Calif. — Weather extremes on both coasts have put California grower-shippers in a much stronger position in the lettuce market this summer than last, especially for iceberg and green leaf.

“Green leaf is on fire,” said Mark McBride, a salesman for Salinas-based Coastline Produce.

Most 24-count cartons were shipping for $18.65-20 on July 22, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s up from $10-11.50 a year ago.

Iceberg was throwing some weight around too. Film-wrapped 24-count cartons were $14.50-15.85, up from $9.50-11.50 last year.

“If you’d told anybody in Salinas that we’d be experience this kind of market in mid-July, they’d be pleasantly surprised,” McBride said. “The homegrown deals on the East Coast, the Ohio Valley and upstate New York really got clobbered with rain.”

“Some of the East Coast buyers are pulling a fair amount of lettuce out of California because they’re not happy with the quality they’re getting from their local grower,” said Henry Dill, sales manager for Pacific International Marketing.

Such buyers pay a hefty premium on transportation when they turn west.

Salinas escaped the brunt of an early July heat wave that slowed tree fruit production in other parts of the state.

However, just inland, in south Monterey County, Hollister and San Juan Bautista, temperatures reached the 90s, and lettuce yields took a hit.

“A lot of our lettuce became unharvestable because of the heat,” said Dill, who estimated a short-term volume reduction of 5%. “We lost some due to burn. The heat was just one week, but about three weeks (of production) were affected.”

“It tended to bring some product on out of sequence and possibly do some damage and reduce some of the yields too,” McBride said.

Michael Boggiatto, president of Salinas-based Boggiatto Produce Inc., said problems elsewhere put California growers in an unaccustomed position for summer.

“Usually this time of year is pretty slow for us and prices are at the bottom,” he said July 18. “With the heat wave that’s going through the country, the quality isn’t there in the homegrown. Now it’s our turn to fill the gap for customers.”

But on romaine hearts Boggiatto didn’t see demand or price budging. Not yet, anyway. Most packs of 12 three-count romaine hearts shipped for $13.75-14.50 on July 22, down from $16.95-19.50 the year before. Romaine head 24-count cartons stood at $11.25-12.75, down from $12.16-14.35.

Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development at Salinas-based Church Bros. LLC, said excessive heat or rain in various regions is not the only reason for the price spike in some lettuce categories.

“Everybody has cut back their acreage, and that is reflected in commodity prices,” Van Eeghen said. “After last year’s disaster, we needed that. Prices were incredibly low then because of an oversupply. Cutting back has really corrected the overall supply and put the markets where they should be.”

Although California’s summer action for leafy greens is mostly in Salinas and Santa Maria, some crops — like spinach — are grown in other places, and different shippers will enter the lettuce deal as time goes on.

Baloian Farms, for one, will start lettuce in Fresno in October and then transition to the Coachella Valley in November, sales manager Jeremy Lane said. In March, Baloian’s production will shift back to Fresno and finish up in early May. It’s a three-season offering.

“We’ve found our niche and the customers who desire that high-end quality,” Lane said. “We’re looking forward to reengaging those customers when we jump back in in October.”