SALINAS, Calif. Salinas Valley growers have taken some long-awaited comfort and profits since Yuma, Ariz., vegetable production ended in late March.

Back home, they were greeted by rising prices on lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli.

The winter markets left producers mired in red ink.

"Now we"re putting a few dollars back to the ranch," said Henry Dill, sales manager for Pacific International Marketing. "It was pretty much a cash outlay for almost four months."

"It"s good for the growers here to catch up a little because we lost quite a bit in winter," said Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Church Bros. LLC.

Most 24-count romaine cartons shipped f.o.b. for $10.35-11.65 on April 21 out of Salinas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were just $7.50-9.61 on March 3 in Yuma.

Iceberg film-lined 24s were about $10.50 on April 14, up from $6 on March 3.
Cauliflower prices spiked. Film wrapped white 12s hit $24.25-26.55 on April 21, up from $11.25-12.55 on March 3. On broccoli, 20-pound loose crown cut shipped for $11.35-13.45 on April 14 out of Salinas, up from $8.56-9.61 on March 3 in Arizona.

"Cauliflower is the most affected, that"s going to be really tight," Van Eeghen said April 15. He expected gaps in various commodities to last for at least a couple more weeks.

"The East Coast homegrown guys are hurting from storms," he said. "So the East and Midwest will pull more from here, which will drive pricing up as well."

The warm winter in the West brought an early end to the Yuma deal and put demand pressure on Salinas supplies just as they came online albeit a week or two sooner than usual.

Harvesting younger crop

Church Bros. was fully operational March 22 at its True Leaf Farms processing plant in San Juan Bautista, as its Yuma site shut down.

"We"re harvesting younger stuff just to stay in supply," Van Eeghen said.

Salinas has gone from strangely sunny winter days to some oddly cool spring evenings. That is likely to return crops to their normal growth cycle slowing them Dill said.

"We"re anticipating lighter than normal supplies of head lettuce through the end of April," said Mark McBride, a salesman for Coastline Produce. "Cauliflower is temperature sensitive. We"re still getting nighttime temperatures in the mid- to high-40s. For this time of year, we should be up into the 50s."

"A lot of guys still haven"t really cranked up as far as head lettuce in Salinas," Dill said April 15. "They"re packing, but I wouldn"t say some of these guys are going full bore yet."

Salinas-based Colorful Harvest LLC reported cauliflower volumes were on the uptick after a brief slowdown.
The grower-shipper also plans to nearly double its production of purple, orange, green and white cauliflowers this year, said Doug McFarland, marketing director.

End-of-May shortage

Mark Adamek, general manager for romaine and mixed leaf production at Salinas-based Tanimura &amp Antle, said April 17 that demand is driving this market strongly enough, perhaps, to put the industry on course for a shortage by the end of May.

"Inventories will stay good here in the Salinas Valley until late May," Adamek said. "I believe there"s a hole coming. All growers are harvesting seven to 14 days ahead of schedule because of the lack of winter weather.

There"s almost always a reckoning when that happens."

"It"s not like inventories are bad," he said. "We went through a period where we couldn"t get product back to East Coast customers, but most of that winter weather is gone now. I have a feeling people were just hungry for some produce."

That pricing on romaine, for example, rose even while processors showed little vigor for buying it, points to a demand-driven market, he said.