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Winter storm could further disrupt vegetable supplies

A cold winter storm that plowed through California and moved east through Arizona the week of Feb. 18-22 is expected to have an impact on vegetable supplies in the short term.

The storm came down the coast and through the Central Valley on Tuesday dropping a few inches of snow at the higher altitudes and pelting fields and orchards with freezing rain and occasional hail. The storm moved quickly through each area so lasting damage appeared to be minimal.

However, low snow levels did close the Grapevine, which connects Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley, on Wednesday morning, Feb. 20, as the overnight snow turned to ice. Other arteries moving out of the Southern California area were also shut down for short periods as roads were being plowed.

The rare occurrence caused havoc as the local governments just don't have the necessary snow-removal equipment to do the job quickly.

In anticipation of the high winds and cold weather predicted for later in the day, the Yuma, AZ, school district closed its schools about noon on Wednesday, Feb. 20, and said they would also be closed on Thursday and remain closed through the weekend, as Friday was a scheduled off day.

The weather situation was also being played out on television as the PGA Tour's World Golf Championship was taking place in Tucson, AZ, where snow flurries and high winds were evident at the high-elevation course.

One produce broker who was watching the tournament on television quipped, "If they are getting that same weather in Yuma, I wouldn't want to be there."

Several California and Arizona produce brokers and shippers said that the storm had not yet done any damage but vegetable prices continued to be strong. In fact, the Iceberg lettuce market was at a solid $14-$16 on Feb. 20. If the weather prediction is accurate and freezing rains do drench the desert fields, there could be a dip in supply over the next week.

One Salinas-based shipper who asked not to be identified, said supplies have been up and down throughout the winter vegetable deal and will remain so for most commodities through the end of March. His company's interoffice memo predicted light or moderate supplies of a host of products over the next month ranging from the leafy items to broccoli, cauliflower and green onions.

And the company predicted that celery supplies will be especially light over the next couple of months and possibly be in very short supply in April.

Typically, the desert regions of California and Arizona are the main source of supply for most vegetables through the month of March. By April, harvest of some of the crucifers, such as broccoli and cauliflower, will have shifted to the Salinas Valley.

Huron, in California's San Joaquin Valley, tends to be the major point of origin for Iceberg and Romaine lettuce in April, as the shift from the desert to Salinas and the Santa Maria area takes place. Those coastal districts typically come into full production in May.

"Supplies are going to be up and down moving forward," reiterated the anonymous shipper. "The big thing to look for is celery in April. There isn't going to be any."