After five years of drought, this spring’s deluge has turned California’s “Salad Bowl” into a soggy agricultural mess. That’s created stratospheric prices for lettuce, broccoli and other salad ingredients grown along California’s coast.
A crazy California winter, with a mix of unseasonably warm weather and a series of drenching rains, has confounded farmers and produced gyrating prices for consumers across the country. The wholesale price of iceberg lettuce grown in California has risen sixfold since January, while broccoli has quadrupled; conditions are expected to persist for several more weeks.
“Supplies are tight, and prices have come way up,” said Roland Fumasi, vice president and senior analyst with agricultural lender Rabobank. “Were going to see some relatively elevated prices and some price volatility … through the middle of next month.”
At Raley’s, the retail price for a head of organic iceberg lettuce has jumped to $2.99, an increase of about $1 since January. A pound of broccoli has gone from $1.69 in January to $2.99 today, said Greg Corrigan, senior director of produce and floral for the West Sacramento supermarket chain.
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The price increases for shoppers would be even higher except Raley’s has chosen to eat some of the costs for competitive reasons.
“You try to maintain a reasonable price point so you can keep product moving,” Corrigan said. “We’re not making the margins we would normally make.”
He said there’s been little pushback from shoppers. “They’re understanding that it’s a seasonal supply issue,” he said.
The skyrocketing prices illustrate once again California’s importance in feeding the country, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables. The state produces 94 percent of the nation’s broccoli, 96 percent of its celery and 76 percent of its lettuce, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
So when California’s vegetable growers run into supply problems, the rest of America feels it. Fumasi said the weather of the past few months produced something of a triple whammy, creating a pinch in the pipeline.
It started with an unusually warm winter in the winter growing regions of the Southwest, including the Coachella and Imperial valleys in California and the western reaches of Arizona. The warm weather led to an early end to the harvest.
That was compounded by a series of heavy rains that delayed planting in the spring growing regions, including Oxnard, Santa Maria and the Salinas Valley. Salinas calls itself the “Salad Bowl of the World” and alone produces nearly 70 percent of the state’s lettuce crop and half its broccoli.
“We had a really wet winter that disrupted planted schedules and caused some disease problems,” said Mary Zischke of the California Leafy Greens Research Program, a grower-supported group based in Salinas. “There were days when planting didn’t go on.”
Then came the rains of early April, which slowed down the harvest on the coast.
All told, the weather patterns generated a hiccup in supplies, an interruption in what is usually a smooth transition from the Coachella-Imperial growing season to the coastal season. “It creates a supply gap,” Fumasi said.
Despite the short-term disruption, farmers remain grateful for the end of the drought.
“It is causing some issues, but you’re not going to hear growers complaining about a lot of rain and snow in the mountains,” Fumasi said. “We’ll deal with the water.”
And with the harvest starting to roll in, conditions are moderating.
“Supplies are starting to creep up,” Zischke said. “I’m not saying they’re going to be to back to normal in short order, but we are starting to see prices starting to slip.”