California lettuce gains popularity as weather beats local deals

07/17/2012 05:24:00 PM
Mike Hornick

SALINAS, Calif. — Increasingly, East Coast buyers are turning to California for their summer lettuce needs as homegrown deals take a beating from the weather.

Storms in Quebec plus high heat in the Ohio Valley and across the U.S. have taken a toll on local leafy greens, especially romaine. That spiked prices in the second week of July.

“Market activity has been slowly building to where we’re quoting $20 a box on romaine hearts today (July 9),” said Mark Adamek, general manager for romaine and mixed leaf production at Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle. “There’s just a lot more interest in California leafy green items.”

Most buyers who didn’t book early at a lower price paid $16.95-20.14 for a dozen three-count packages of Salinas-grown romaine hearts July 17, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two weeks earlier, it was $9.45-11. On 24-count romaine cartons, prices rose from the $6.95-8.55 range to $13.56-14.95.

For iceberg, film-lined 24-count cartons ran $9.35-11.48 on July 17, up from $6.50-7.85. Green leaf lettuce is mostly $10.95-12.50 on 24-count cartons, up from $8-9.50. Santa Maria also is producing, in lower volumes.

The rising demand for lettuce comes at a time when California stone fruit, grapes and other commodities are all in production and competing for trucks. That’s likely to keep freight rates up.

However, the volumes those trucks can haul, even in the best scenario, may be modest until fall.

“During summertime we cut our leafy plantings in half because East Coast customers are buying homegrown,” said Henry Dill, sales manager at Pacific International Marketing. “Our acreage goes down to help compensate for that.” California’s summer competition includes deals in Canada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Michigan.

A second issue is weather in the Salinas Valley itself. Temperatures here, unlike much of the U.S., have hovered comfortably under 70 degrees, although wind has been a problem.

“I talked with my peers in other companies, and we’re all struggling with a fringe burn, so the product has gotten short,” Adamek said. “There’s very little calm air and the strain of high winds is visible. It’s affecting romaine and romaine hearts especially, but I see the damage in a smaller way on all the leaf items.”

For California growers, the bump in lettuce prices — following another for broccoli — is obviously welcome. But enthusiasm is tempered by the stagnant vegetable markets that held sway before.


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