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Unusual hot fall market greets vegetable industry

For Rodney Van Bebber, his San Joaquin Valley broccoli plants can't grow fast enough.

As the Mendota, CA-based Pappas & Co. sales manager surveyed his fields at least a week away from harvest on Oct. 16, he also was looking at a broccoli sales in the $28-35 range for bunches and crowns.

"For years, we used to get started on Oct. 5, but we never had an October market," he said. "We'd break even in November and make our money in December."

Consequently, the company and other growers in this niche window that comes between production in the Salinas Valley and the desert areas of California and Arizona, started planting a little bit later. This year, Pappas was looking at an Oct. 20 harvest date for its first fields, which are grown under contract. It won't be until around Nov. 1 when the firm will be able to take advantage of the open market.

Van Bebber has been around long enough to know markets can change quickly, yet he said it appears that there will still be a strong market come November.

The lack of water, he said, has greatly limited plantings in the San Joaquin Valley this year, and while there will be a boost in vegetable supplies over what exists now in the middle of October, it will be much less than usual. Considering November usually brings good pricing, this year could be special.

"If I had broccoli right now, we could cover our costs in a couple of weeks," he said.

Mark McBride, who is on the sales desk of Coastline in Salinas, CA, also marveled at the hot market for broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and some of the other vegetable items.

"I've never seen anything like it at this time of the year," he said Oct. 15.

He said bunch broccoli was $28-29 per carton that day, while crowns were in the $30-34 range. The cauliflower market was in the high $20s to low $30s, with Iceberg lettuce in the lows $20s and strong markets existing across the vegetable board.

Speaking specifically of broccoli, McBride said bad weather in Mexico reduced production, which has had a big impact.

"You don't hear a lot about it, but we battle Mexican broccoli for much of the year," McBride said. "A lot of Mexican production got damaged by rain recently and it's been warm up here, which has hurt our yields."

McBride has heard that the San Joaquin Valley production is down, so he expects the market to stay strong until desert production begins in mid- to late-November.

Pappas said Santa Maria does have broccoli all year, but the volume does not appear to be great enough to keep up with current demand.

Concurring with that statement was Dave Johnson of Gold Coast Packing Inc. in Santa Maria, who said, "It's not like it used to be. There is less land devoted to broccoli. We are competing for the same land with strawberries and hoop berries."

He said one field he passes all the time used to be planted in broccoli year round, but now it has mixed berries on it.

Both Pappas and McBride said the home-grown deals on the East Coast and in Canada have also contributed to the strong market by flaming out a bit early and producing less volume than usual. Many buyers are switching back to the West Coast for their vegetables, adding to the demand side of the equation.

McBride said another factor driving the lettuce market is that the fall weather has produced a less-dense head of lettuce. Processors are looking for pounds and they are having to harvest more acres to get those pounds.

Though the hot market has somewhat been in concert with the shuttering of the U.S. Market News Service by the federal government shutdown, Johnson of Gold Coast does not believe that has played a factor. While many buyers do look at those daily reports to get a sense of the market price, he said just as important are the many price sheets faxed to them by sellers every day.

"While the price sheets are more of a wish list compared to the reality of Market News, you can still get a pretty good picture of what's going on by looking at those lists," he said.

Johnson said as is usually the case, many factors combine to produce a hot market and typically an equal number of factors come into play to bring the market back down. He expects that sticker shock at retail will combine with some increased production moving forward to bring the demand down a bit, and the market will come with it.

"I think in about 10 days we will see a much different market," he said Oct. 15.

But in the meantime, he is enjoying the unprecedented situation and echoed the statements of the others.

"It is the hottest market I have ever seen at this time of year," he said.