SALINAS, Calif. — A strong market for California lettuce loosened its grip on buyers a bit in mid-July, but there was no mercy in pricing on romaine hearts.

A dozen three-count packages of hearts shipped for $20.65 to $22.64 out of Salinas July 14, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, romaine 24-count cartons were $14 to $16.

Strong California lettuce market eases“There’s big money in romaine hearts,” said Mark McBride, salesman for Coastline Family Farms. “They are extremely tight. With our weather pattern, romaine hasn’t fully cupped to form the true heart we like to see. For this time of year supplies are lighter than normal and prices are much higher.”

In less than two weeks film-lined cartons of iceberg 24s dipped from $21 to $14 or $15, according to the USDA. Those numbers were more typical of the category but still left growers in Salinas and Santa Maria with less cause to complain than in recent summers.

“Markets have eased off,” Jeff Church, director of daily sales and customer service for Salinas-based Church Bros. LLC, said July 11. “We typically see demand go down the week of the Fourth of July and the following week. Business is off 10% every year at this time. We don’t see any oversupply situation coming, just a combination of a little more supply and a slight downtick in demand.”

It’s been a strange summer in Salinas. Temperatures, normally cool on a steady basis, have alternated between even cooler stretches and humid or hot hours. Combined with lighter summer plantings by some growers, that’s tamped down volume.

“We’ve walked through fields at 8 a.m.,” said Henry Dill, sales manager for Pacific International Marketing. “The fog breaks and at 11:30 suddenly I’m finding three or four heads per box with internal burn and I’ve got to stop. I have to walk away or figure out something to do with it because it’s got more burn than we can put in a box.”

Moisture inside the heads heats up more than normal, causing the discoloration.

California growers stung by the loss of sales linked to the unusually harsh winter in the East and Midwest seem to have responded by limiting plantings.

“There was a lot of product and a lot of money lost this past winter,” McBride said. “Usually that shows up in the subsequent deals. You’re just not going to plant any extra, and you may even reduce a bit to go on the lean side.”

The strong market had much to do, as well, with the late start to homegrown lettuce deals.

“In the past two years we’ve had local product out of Canada, New Jersey or the East Coast coming in by May 5,” Dill said. “This year they didn’t start becoming a factor until June 1.”

“New Jersey has been going in a light way for about week on some vegetable items, Canada about 10 to 12 days,” McBride said July 15. “Maine started shipping some broccoli last week and Northeast volume has picked up.”

“One customer said, ‘Freight rates are a big part of your delivered cost,’” McBride recalled. “High freight unfortunately makes people pay more attention to homegrown.”

In California, fresh produce suppliers in the Salinas and Central valleys are going through something of an annual ritual, competing for trucks and driving up freight prices.

Vegetables can be at a disadvantage in that competition, according to McBride.

“Broccoli or any of those items go 768 to 1,200 cartons,” he said. “With stone fruit you’ve got more packages to spread that high cost of the truck over.”

California still claims advantages over East Coast suppliers of lettuce and leafy greens.

“The homegrown deals have gotten better over the years but our quality and consistency is greater,” McBride said. “We’ll work through this summer like all the others and we’ll be around for the winter.”