Courtesy Tanimura & AntleHarvesters 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.