Harvesters work a romaine field in the Yuma, Ariz., area for Tanimura & Antle Jan. 28 near muddy roads. Rains have further diminished supply.
Harvesters work a romaine field in the Yuma, Ariz., area for Tanimura & Antle Jan. 28 near muddy roads. Rains have further diminished supply.

Lettuce prices have shot up fivefold for some pack sizes and varieties since Christmas as another round of freezes and rainstorms hit desert production regions.

Cartons of 24 romaine heads out of Yuma, Ariz., shipped for $33.25 to $36.35 on Jan. 28, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were just $6.95 to $7.65 on Dec. 17.

A dozen three-count packages of romaine hearts were $36.50 to $37.56, up from $10.45 to $12.

John Burton, general manager for sales and cooler at Coachella, Calif.-based Peter Rabbit Farms, calls it a “nightmare gap.”

When will it end? The answer varies by region and grower. February could bring a measure of relief, but some growers are already bracing for another shortfall in March when the deal transitions to Huron and Salinas.

“There’s an empty pipeline and nothing to replace it with, including iceberg,” Burton said. “Foodservice and salad guys are looking for clean romaine so they’re out buying fields. Everyone’s grabbing for their piece of the pie and there’s just not enough to go around. People that would take four loads a week are getting one.”

In Yuma, production came to a standstill as an inch and a half or so of rain fell Jan. 25-27. More was forecast. That followed a series of frost nights in the first half of the month.

“We had anywhere from 10 to 14 straight days of morning ice,” said Mark Adamek, general manager for romaine and mixed leaf production at Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle. “A few of those episodes were long-duration ices. The crop is pretty beat up and the industry is dealing with down yields. But we’re also trying our best to hold on to our inventories, because we all think that at the end of the deal we’re not going to have enough.”

The spate of frost nights in January followed one in December. Frosts aren’t unusual in the Arizona or California deserts. What really hurt this year was unseasonably warm weather early in the deal that left volume already depleted, due to quality issues, when the thermometer dropped.

“The first part of the season, even though I was harvesting the fields, I was throwing a good third of it back on the ground,” Adamek said. “It wasn’t shippable.”

In Coachella, there were four to five frosts in the first 10 days or so of January.

“Those cold days turned a legitimate gap into a nightmare gap where we couldn’t harvest more than 25% of normal on any given day,” Burton said.

Not only romaine, but iceberg, green leaf, red leaf, butter and spinach just stopped growing. His romaine peeled and blistered.

Burton was cautiously optimistic about a pickup in Coachella volume.

“We’ll be pretty much out of the woods by the first week of February, according to our farming department,” he said. “We’re tired of this weather but it is what makes markets. We think this thing is going to fix itself with good, warmer conditions.”

On iceberg, prices for film-lined cartons of 24 ran mostly $24.48 to $27.75 out of Yuma, according to the USDA, up from $6.35 to $7.14 on Dec. 17.

“Sadly enough, it might not be enough of a market to dig us out of the hole we dug in the fall,” Adamek said. “We were losing so much production to heat. But it goes a long way in helping.”

“Supply may ease up to a small degree in the next few weeks,” he said. “But what’s not going to change is the shortage that’s looming at the end of the deal. In spite of all these cold weather episodes, I’m still a week and a half ahead in all my fields.”

“The San Joaquin and Salinas valleys had cold, wet weather during their initial plantings. At the end of the desert deal, when we’re wrapping up our last plantings (in Yuma) and the two come together, I suspect they won’t dovetail very nicely.”