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In California, winter rains to bring spring gaps

After four to five years of drought, virtually every California grower was asking for rain this year. They got what they asked for and more, which is going to result in an uneven supply situation for most row crops, at least through early spring.

As March dawned, production from the desert regions of California and Arizona was still leading the charge so supplies were fairly stable. But as the month progresses, shippers will be transitioning to the coastal valleys of California as well as the Huron district on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and supply problems will undoubtedly occur.20170217 132505Fields in Santa Maria, CA, were inundated in late-February, hampering efforts to harvest product. Supply gaps are expected for a number of products as a result of the heavy rains that deluged much of California this winter. Photo courtesy of Babe Farms.

“The rainfall has very much disrupted planting schedules,” said Mark McBride, veteran salesman for Coastline Family Farms in Salinas, CA. “All of our commodities will be affected to some degree.”

He expects some early cauliflower and broccoli production from the Salinas Valley in mid-March; the lettuce harvest to shift to Huron by the end of March; and for lettuce and leaf items to begin in Salinas within the first 10 days of April. As that transition occurs, inconsistent supplies are expected.

“All shippers are in the same boat,” McBride said, possibly not expecting that metaphor to be so apropos, as fields have been underwater more regularly than anyone would have expected, especially in February.

“From mid-March until at least the first of May, supplies will be erratic,” he said.

A couple of hundred miles down the coast, Denny Donovan, sales manager for Fresh Kist Produce LLC, predicted the same scenario from his perch in Santa Maria.

“There has been very little planting activity here for the past two to three weeks,” he said March 1. “Now we have had eight or nine days of pretty good weather, so the tractors are back out in the fields trying to catch up. But that’s hard to do.”

In addition, he said the broccoli and cauliflower currently being harvested have quality issues because of the unrelenting rains. He said the market is well aware of those issues, and so on this particular day while desert shipments of broccoli crowns were returning about $22 per carton, Santa Maria shippers were only getting about $14.

“You hate to say you have poor quality, but that’s the case right now,” said Donovan.

He expects quality to improve and volume to pick up throughout March, but yields will be down and there will be supply gaps.

Donovan said the desert deals should finish up by March 25 and after that supplies will be spotty for a couple of months. He noted that most crops going in the ground in early March will have a harvest date of early to mid-May, depending upon the weather. So, assuming no devastating rainstorms in March, that points to May as the beginning of more consistent supplies.

Matt Hiltner, social media and marketing assistant for Babe Farms Inc. in Santa Maria, CA, had photographs that are indicative of the issues that this specialty vegetable producer faced during the month of February. “The rain impacted us a lot,” he said. “Of course we were hoping for a lot of rain this year, but I’d say we got a little too much.”

Babe Farms harvests most of the year from Santa Maria, and Hiltner said the current supplies have quality issues. “A lot of the fields were flooded. Right now we are having some problems with radishes. When it was raining we harvested all the plants on high ground and now we are going back and getting those radishes that were sitting on lower ground.”

Intuitively, he said one might expect that the radish itself, after sitting in soaked fields for many days, would be displaying quality issues. “The radishes look good, it’s the tops we’re having problems with.”

Like the others interviewed, Hiltner said it is going to take several weeks to work through the results of the rain.

Continuing to the south, Paul Kawamura, a salesman for Gem-Pack Berries in Irvine, CA, said six inches of rain in strawberry fields in Southern California during one late-February storm greatly reduced volume during the last full week of February and it will take several weeks to get back on track.

“We had nothing last week,” Kawamura said March 1. “We are going to rebound this week, but it is going to take two to three weeks to be back to normal.”

He anticipates promotable volume from the Oxnard area by the third week of March.

Kawamura said the market has responded with flats of strawberries selling for $14 to $18 in early March. Even with increased supplies from California, he said the market should remain fairly strong in March as shipments from Florida and Mexico start to decline. Both those areas of origin are well above their production levels of 2016 at this same point in time.

In total, by Feb. 25, Florida and Mexico had a combined volume of about 36 million cartons compared to about half that in late February 2016. For the past two years, those two production areas have combined to ship around 50 million trays to the U.S. market.

As a point of reference, by Feb. 25, California had shipped just 3 million crates compared to the close to 200 million it typically produces in a calendar year.