High cauliflower prices are only the most dispiriting of a series of aggravations for buyers of California and Arizona produce.
Some vegetable items could remain in short supply to mid-January.
Retailers who typically move 20% to 25% more broccoli, cauliflower and celery during the Christmas pull may find that only 75% of pre-pull supply is available, said Jason Lathos, commodities manager for Salinas, Calif.-based Church Brothers LLC.
“These items are getting promoted and are extremely undersupplied by 25%,” Lathos said Dec. 11. The three cold crops — as growers call them — are base ingredients in the deli trays sold in higher numbers during the holidays.
That’s great for growers and grim for buyers, as the numbers bear out.
Cauliflower cartons of film wrapped 12s shipped for $44.75 to $47.45 Dec. 10 out of Santa Maria, Calif., up from $22 to $25.35 a year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Broccoli in 20-pound cartons loose crown cut shipped for $30 to $33 out of Santa Maria, Calif., up from $7.50 to $8.85 year-over-year.
Celery cartons of two dozen from Oxnard, Calif., went for $36 to $39, up $8 in one week. Imperial Valley, Calif., iceberg lettuce in cartons of film wrapped 24s were $20 to $23, up from $8.45 to $9 in 2014.
As warm weather on the East Coast kept demand high, West Coast temperatures dipped to normal winter levels. That slowed growth after fall warmth sped harvests and ended deals early. The transition from Salinas to the California and Arizona deserts was hardly seamless.
“When the market got really active, people reached forward both to satisfy orders and to sell product at $30 or $40 that was $8 the previous year,” Lathos said. “If you needed to get a week ahead to capture those $40 sales, you’d do it.”
Ocean Mist Farms expects to resume budgeted volumes of cauliflower by Jan. 10 or 15, said Art Barrientos, vice president for harvesting. Meanwhile it’s a hard slog.
“There’s vigorous growth on the cauliflower jacket, but head growth is erratic and anemic,” Barrientos said Dec. 11. “We’re so short we’re cutting 50 or 75 cartons per acre when normally at first cut you want 150 or 200. The problem is industrywide.”
Celery in Oxnard, Calif., returned to seasonally normal cool temperatures and short harvest days just as Christmas demand arrived, said Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Boskovich Farms. That compounded local problems in Oxnard, where the fusarium soil fungus cut celery yields 20%.
“Everything was far ahead of schedule, but now with cooler weather everything is back to normal growing days and that really slowed supply,” Widerburg said. “And the last couple years were not stellar for celery growers. They probably pulled in their reins a bit and didn’t plant excess product.”
Henry Dill, sales manager for Pacific International Marketing, said his start date for Yuma, Ariz., celery moved back from Dec. 20 to Dec. 28 or Jan. 1.
“One customer said he would take some celery out of Florida, but I’m sure Florida will be limited to start,” he said.
“Broccoli is real active,” Dill said Dec. 11. “Cold weather held back some of the Mexican production. Here, we expected decent numbers for the Christmas pull but it hasn’t panned out.”
As if there weren’t already enough variables to ponder, Yuma growers also battled lettuce ice the week of Dec. 14.
“We were delayed a couple hours this morning,” Mark McBride, salesman for Salinas-based Coastline Family Farms, said Dec. 16.
The cold weather will cause blistering, peeling and discoloration on head and leaf lettuces, McBride said.
Temperatures dropped to as low as 28 degrees early the morning of Dec. 16, delaying harvests, Lathos said.
“We will lose an estimated four to five hours of harvest capacity, and estimates continue to decrease due lack of growth.”
Lathos also said that lettuce would suffer blisters and peeling.
Markets Editor Andy Nelson contributed to this story.