Lettuce volumes returning to normal, growers say

07/21/2011 11:32:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

SALINAS, Calif. — California grower-shippers would love to see lettuce prices break out of their summer doldrums. Some are guardedly optimistic — but whether a bounce happens or how big it will be are up for grabs.

On July 11, 24-count cartons of iceberg out of Salinas, Calif., fetched $8.50-9.61, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After last year’s prolonged rains, the price was an unusually high $15 a year ago on the same date.

Romaine 24-count cartons are going for $7.55-8.50, compared to $6-7.65 in 2010.

“Prices could go up or down $2 or $3, but I don’t see anything changing dramatically unless there are heat waves,” said Sammy Duda, vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods.

The recent trading range is not a profitable one for growers, he said.

Rick Antle, chief executive officer of Tanimura & Antle, said the flat prices were a result of large yields on lettuce and leaf commodities running headlong into normal demand levels and high freight.

This year’s spring rains were shorter but more intense, flooding some fields near the Salinas River. A lot of catch-up plantings of lettuce were done quickly in the storms’ aftermath, Antle said.

“We’re in a little bit of an oversupply situation, and the price reflects that,” he said. “We’re working our way through that, and now it’s a fairly normal crop. We’d expect a change (in price) around the end of July.”

Fuel costs as well may hold the lid down.

“Customers pay the transportation,” said Michael Boggiatto, president and general manager of Boggiatto Produce, Salinas. “I would imagine that has something to do with prices being down. People feel they can’t do anything about the gas prices so they take it out on the produce.”

Nevertheless, Boggiatto said low summer commodity prices are no historical oddity in the region. One reason is the competition from homegrown lettuce and leaf in the Midwest, East and Canada.

“With romaine, green leaf and red leaf, we’re feeling some of the effects of the homegrown deals,” said Mark McBride, sales manager at Salinas-based Coastline Produce. “But we’ve got a good customer base, and we did get through the critical Fourth of July holiday with good movement.”

In the Santa Maria region Ron Berghoefer, vice president of sales and marketing at Lompoc-based Santa Barbara Farms LLC, said iceberg sizes and supply were off in May and June but have returned to normal.

“We ended up packing a lot of 30-size, which we would not normally do,” Berghoefer said. “We see good quality and steady supplies for the rest of the summer.”

In San Juan Bautista, Earthbound Farm, which grows and ships organics, reports a brighter volume outlook for romaine than iceberg.

“We’re expecting very good supplies of romaine and the quality forecast is excellent,” Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications at Earthbound Farm, said in early July. “Organic iceberg supplies look constrained and below budgeted volumes.”

Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting for Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms, said California growers were coping with internal burn symptoms in romaine and romaine hearts in June. It’s a common quality issue traceable to the region’s characteristic morning fog and afternoon sunshine pattern.

“Not to say that won’t flare up again, but it’s cleared up,” Barrientos said.



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