California deal may plug supply gaps

02/28/2011 03:27:11 PM
Mike Hornick

SALINAS, Calif. — As California’s spring vegetable deal approaches, grower-shippers brace for the effects of freezes in Mexico and Arizona that sent prices higher on several commodities.

“What I worry about with Mexico freezing is if they’re able to plant or replant,” Donnie Blanton, director of sales for Selma-based Sunnyside Packing Co., said in early February. “They could come in and compete with us. They had a huge frost, and they’re losing crop, but if they start putting it back in that could butt into our season and make things difficult.”

California production ramps up in late March as first Huron and then Salinas come online.

The supply bottleneck resulting from Yuma, Ariz., freezes that sent iceberg and romaine lettuce prices soaring above the $30 mark for 24-count cartons is likely to be short-lived, said Michael Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce.

“As we get closer to turning on the key in Salinas, the desert will come on strong in volume,” Boggiatto said. “There’s going to be an overabundance of romaine for a while. It’s going to be a late deal for the desert and an early deal for Salinas.”

The Salinas deal could arrive early thanks to six weeks of relentless sunshine and comfort from New Year’s to Valentine’s Day that prudent Californians didn’t mention to snowbound friends in the Midwest and Northeast. John D’Arrigo, president of D’Arrigo Bros. Co., called the stretch tropical by comparison to the rest of the U.S. December rains that dumped an inch a day on Oxnard for a week — harming celery and upping its price — didn’t hurt Salinas, Boggiatto said.

The dry stretch that followed put plantings on schedule, said Samantha Cabaluna, communications director at San Juan Bautista-based Earthbound Farm. “The unseasonably warm weather in January could accelerate the growth on some of the crucifer crops in the ground, but it shouldn’t pose a problem,” she said.

Sammy Duda, vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, said his company’s 3½ week Huron deal is right on schedule.

“There are no issues at all there,” he said.

Duda wished he could say the same of other regions.

“It’s the first time in my career, 27 years, that all production areas have been affected in one way or another (by freezes),” he said. “Florida, Texas, Yuma, Mexico, Oxnard — I don’t know if it’s ever hit all of them at once.”

Some growers struck cautionary notes, partly in response to mid-February rains.

“If they extend into March, which is a critical planting period, there is the potential for planting gaps and supply interruptions,” said Rick Antle, chief executive officer at Tanimura & Antle. “The die is not cast.”

California’s winter vegetable acreage was 76,000, up 3% from a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Broccoli acreage was down, but carrots, cauliflower, head lettuce and celery all showed gains. For 2010, fresh-market gross revenue fell 4% from the prior year in California to $5.4 billion, or 48% of U.S. vegetable value, the USDA said.



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