Leaf supply, demand hit lull; iceberg prices high

02/25/2004 12:00:00 AM
Bryan Scribner

(Feb. 25) SALINAS, Calif. — Low supplies and depressed demand for lettuce kept romaine and leaf prices in the single-digits in late February, while iceberg prices shot into the teens.

It’s a trend shippers said would likely continue into March, as the industry makes its transition from Yuma, Ariz., to Huron growing regions.

Mills Inc. plans to start its three- to four-week red leaf, green leaf and romaine lettuce shipments out of Huron on March 20, said Steve Davis, salesman for Mills. The company will start with iceberg lettuce in Huron after its Yuma deal ends April 1.

Davis said prices the second half of February were $16-18 for iceberg and about $5-7 for leaf products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported cartons of iceberg 24s out of Arizona at $17.10-18.25 the last week of February. Cartons of 24s from California’s Imperial Valley were priced at about $1 less.

Romaine 24s out of Arizona were reported at $7-7.25.

LAST YEAR

During about the same time last year, prices were all over the board. Iceberg 24s sold for $3.60-4.60 at the start of February, and they sold for $5.10-7.25 by mid-month.

Even more jumpy were romaine prices, which started the month at $4.10-6.10 for 24s, and then climbed up to $14.35-16.35 by mid-February.

Unlike last season, shippers said this year has been relatively consistent.

However, Duda California’s supplies were cut back because of cool weather in January, and sluggish February demand for iceberg lettuce was expected to continue, said Sammy Duda, vice president and general manager of Duda California/Gene Jackson Farms Inc.

“There’s really no supply to speak of, but there’s really no demand either,” Duda said. “Typically, February’s a very weak consumption month. It’s our weakest month of the year.”

Duda said volumes were noticeably lower than normal the last week of February, a trend he said he expected to continue for several weeks.

DISEASE

In addition to low January temperatures, the company’s crop was affected by disease.

Since the second week of February, Duda said sclerotinia, a soil-born pathogen, had spread across some of its iceberg acreage in eastern Yuma.

Most shippers said the fairly common disease is present every year. For Duda, however, an outbreak has claimed 15% of its crop on some plots, Duda said.

“You have some environmental triggers, which we can’t quite put our finger on, that cause it to be worse some years,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s caused it to be worse this year, but apparently conditions are right.”


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