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Good demand, strong prices greet shift in western veg production

A confluence of weather conditions has created a demand-exceeds-supply situation for many vegetables as the production from the West shifts from the desert to the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley and coastal California.

Those various climatic situations include a tremendous amount of rain in January and February throughout California, and warmer-than-anticipated temperatures in March in the southwestern desert districts of California and Arizona.

Steve Adlesh, director of sales and marketing for Beachside Produce LLC in Guadalupe, CA, said the winter rains caused planting challenges for spring production and the hotter-than-expected desert temperatures have ended that deal a bit early.

Adlesh said saturated ground from mid-January through mid-March, when 10 inches or more of rain fell in many of the farming districts from Oxnard to Salinas, meant a spotty planting record in that time period and spotty supplies in this April-May period.

The regular crop update newsletter, Straight Talk, published by Tanimura & Antle about every three weeks, succinctly articulated the desert heat issue: “An extreme heat wave last week (early March) in the Sonoran Desert Valleys where temperatures routinely exceeded 95 degrees (8-20 degrees above normal) has pushed the transition timetable up. Most commodities are finishing between seven to 14 days early, creating gap concerns.”

The supply outlook noted that some growers are attempting to mitigate the gap issue by “pushing fields beyond acceptable maturity targets and breaking fields earlier than normal in the north. Both scenarios contribute to diminishing yields and extend availability issues further and further out.”

A quick look at the daily western shipping price report from the Federal-State Market News Service for Monday, March 27, illustrated the issue. Iceberg lettuce was being quoted at $16 to $21 per carton, while Romaine was above $40, cauliflower was in the $26-$32 range and “other lettuces” were all over the board, from $20 to $40 per carton.

In its newsletter, T&A credited the “unrelenting wet weather in California” throughout the winter for comprising initial harvest estimates, as well as future forecasts.”

Adlesh agreed, noting that the inconsistent supplies will last for about as long as the inconsistent planting schedule. T&A’s report said in early March that “it’s difficult to measure the degree to which the planting disruptions will affect overall availability, but there is no doubt that holes in production will continue to manifest well into to the month of April and beyond.”

The entire vegetable industry is preparing for a very inconsistent spring, and the effects from current weather conditions are still in play. Mid-March brought a 10-day warming trend with good winds that helped dry out some fields and bring on some crops, such as strawberries.

According to the National Berry Report, compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, berry production jumped during the March 19-26 week with California producing more than 3 million trays during the week for the first time this season. Volume should continue to increase and climb to more than 7 million trays a week during the peak weeks of the year, typically in April, May and June.

Continued wet weather could also play a role. While the possibility of major rainstorms diminishes as spring progresses, any disruption in harvesting will have an impact, especially with supplies already expected to be limited.

But on the plus side, all this rain has filled the reservoirs and given growers throughout the state assurance that they will have adequate water supplies this summer. Though final water allocations from the water projects have not yet been released by state or federal bureaucrats, they are expected to be at 80 percent of contract levels or above, which is sufficient to fill the needs of almost all growers.