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Hot lettuce market subsides, mixed bag expected moving forward

Uncharacteristic weather appears to be the norm in California, which is leading to a vegetable supply situation that is very difficult to predict.

The last four months of 2015 saw some very strong markets for most vegetables items because of weather-induced supply gaps. The first four months of this year saw a reversal of fortunes as warmer-than-normal weather produced good supplies.

The month of May has produced a “mixed bag of results,” according to Chuck Manfre, sales manager for Growers Express LLC in Salinas, CA. “We have 42 different items and each one is different.”

Lettuce was in a demand-exceeds-supply situation for the first 10 days of the month, but on May 11, he said “the situation is starting to loosen up. Demand has slowed down because of the higher prices.”

On the other hand, he noted that cauliflower was in short supply and the market had taken a big move upward. “Weather is the culprit. It has been uncharacteristically cold.”

Denny Donovan, sales manager for Fresh Kist Produce LLC in Santa Maria, CA, gave a very similar report. “Last week [May 1-8] cauliflower was going for $10 a carton. This week, it doubled. We’re getting $20 today,” he said May 11.

In the Santa Maria area, Donovan said high winds during the last two weeks in April and cold weather greatly affected yields of several different items. “We would normally get about 900 cartons of lettuce per acre, but last week we were only getting 500.”

Donovan said that created a supply gap in lettuce but by the second week of May, he agreed that the gap had been filled. “Lettuce [pricing] has reached its peak. It’s starting to come off now and supplies are increasing.”

Donovan said that until at least the beginning of June, the vegetable market will be on a yo-yo, with pricing going up and down with supplies.

Both veteran produce salesmen expect that when a more consistent summer weather pattern returns to coastal California supplies will increase and the market will also be more consistent.

“But it’s going to be up to Mother Nature,” Donovan said.

While they would seem to be standing on fairly firm ground expecting normal weather to prevail, it is also clear that abnormal weather has been the order of the day for much of the past year. A colder-than-normal summer (2015), a hotter-than-normal winter (2015-16) and an El Niño situation that did not deliver the rains expected has everyone cautious in their predictions.

While El Niño did not deliver the deluge expected in California, Joe Bernardi of Bernardi & Associates in Turlock, CA, said it has created a “decent” water situation for the California summer tomato crop.

“Right now, in the middle of May, we are in the thick of the Florida tomato crop,” said Bernardi. “They had a tremendous growing season and a bumper crop. As a result we are seeing the lowest market that we have had for the past 12 months.”

However, he expects those supplies to decrease a bit moving forward so that by the time the California mature green season gets under way in the middle of June, there will be a strengthening of the market.

“Plantings are about the same as last year and right now the quality looks good,” he said. “We are anticipating a good deal at the outset. We are expecting to start on June 10, which is a few days earlier than normal.”

Bernardi added that Baja California is currently producing promotable supplies of both vine-ripe tomatoes and Roma tomatoes for the promotion-oriented retailers. He said it was too early to predict how weather across the country will affect the many regional summer tomato deals.

“That is a very important factor, but it’s too early to tell,” said Bernardi.