(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.
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.
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.”
START ON TIME
Like Davis, Duda said he expected his company’s iceberg product to start in Huron on April 1.
Both shippers said lettuce would most likely transition back to Salinas following the three- to four-week Huron deal in the San Joaquin Valley.
Though supplies were expected to be low by early April, Boggiatto Produce Inc. plans to enter the Salinas deal the last week of March, in line with its start date last season, said Michael Boggiatto, president of the company.
The company goes directly from the Imperial Valley to Salinas, bypassing Huron, with its leaf lettuce and romaine crops.
Boggiatto also said low temperatures have decreased lettuce volumes. A freeze and heavy frost lasted for several weeks this winter, shippers said.
“A few weeks back (in January), we had some bad freeze damage to romaine — a lot of blistering and subsequent decay,” Boggiatto said. “That was probably one of the toughest freezes we’ve had in years down there. Even if you were to peel the product way down, the freezing was deep into the romaine.”
Supplies and prices, however, had come closer to normal by late February, Boggiatto said. All winter, he said romaine prices were moderate.
Mills’ Davis said temperatures had started to increase by mid- to late February. High temperatures in Yuma during the last week of the month were expected to be about 70, while lows were expected to be in the 40s.