Lettuce has taken the biggest hit from weather patterns that drove growers in the desert regions of California and Arizona to use up acreage ahead of schedule on all vegetable crops.
“Every day for three straight weeks it was 10 to 15 degrees above the norm, so like many growers we ended up discing multiple blocks of high quality leaf lettuce,” said John Burton, general manager of sales and cooler for Coachella, Calif.-based Peter Rabbit Farms.
“Romaine, green, red, butter,” he said. “It was real sad to watch something you’d cleared the ground to grow and not even be able to touch it. The warmth brought crops on much faster than we were prepared even to harvest, let alone sell.”
Light frosts hit California’s Coachella and Imperial valleys and Yuma, Ariz., starting Dec. 19, part of a welcome cooling trend. The cold did little damage to most operations, but by slowing growth it raised the prospect of January shortages.
“Any given crop could be 25% to 60% short,” John D’Arrigo, president of Salinas, Calif.-based D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California, said Dec. 27. “That’s a fair estimate. It’s too early to be specific but we can see it coming.”
D’Arrigo expects to be shortest in romaine hearts, which his company grows in Yuma.
“I was telling my guys in the sales department all along that we just can’t stop this freight train,” he said. “The product is anywhere from one to four weeks ahead. A lot of romaine hearts are three weeks ahead. We’ve got an industry-wide shortage coming up all the way through January.”
“For us lettuce seems to be more reactive, but I see shortages and disruptions to all the crops,” D’Arrigo said.
Mark McBride, salesman at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce, said Dec. 26 that production in the Imperial Valley was two to three weeks ahead of schedule.
“Not all the fields will slow down, but younger fields will grow at a much slower rate and gaps could develop,” McBride said. “It was the warmest fall that anybody I’m aware of can remember, a highly unusual pattern. Coastline Produce harvest crews experienced brief cold delays Dec. 22, 24 and 26.
Burton said the cold brings a risk of epidermal peeling on lettuce, but outer leaves can be trimmed. There’s no sign yet of weather that could inflict systemic damage.
“We haven’t had a deep freeze yet that we can see any interior leaf destruction,” he said.
“The forecast says it’s going to be clear and cool for the next seven days,” Burton said Dec. 28. “That’s pretty decent growing weather. We should stay steady with harvest amounts probably slightly below our norm for the next week to 10 days.”
Arizona shipping point prices on 12 three-count packages of romaine hearts were mostly $10.25 to $11.10 on Dec. 26 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Year-ago prices, recorded in a time of ice delays, were $13.35 to $14.50.