Salad short­age could last un­til May fol­low­ing Cal­i­for­nian del­uge

Business World - - WORLD BUSINESS -

CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S FARMERS have been plagued by drought in re­cent years but the prob­lem in 2017 is too much rain. That has squeezed US salad sup­plies and it may be a sev­eral more weeks be­fore su­per­mar­ket shelves are fully stocked again.

Warmer-than-usual weather meant the win­ter grow­ing sea­son ended early in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia and western Arizona. That was fol­lowed by heavy rain, push­ing back plant­ing in coastal re­gions of Cal­i­for­nia, which is the largest US fruit and veg­etable pro­ducer.

The de­lays have led to short­falls of crops in­clud­ing let­tuce and broc­coli and sent whole­sale prices soar­ing. The cost of a car­ton of 30 cel­ery heads has al­most tripled since early Fe­bru­ary to $25, US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture data show. A car­ton of 36 hearts of ro­maine let­tuce jumped to about $52 as of April 18, more than four times the cost last year. Prices may re­main volatile and “rel­a­tively el­e­vated” into mid­May, said Roland Fu­masi, a se­nior pro­duce an­a­lyst for Rabobank in Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia.

“The har­vestable crop is not at the level that it nor­mally would have been had we not had th­ese plant­ing de­lays,” he said. “Over the com­ing few weeks or 30 days, the sup­ply gaps will hope­fully be less in­tense and maybe be­gin to go away.”

The West Coast is the main US source of crops like leafy greens, cau­li­flower and broc­coli at this time of year. Cal­i­for­nia’s Sali­nas Val­ley, dubbed the “Salad Bowl of the World,” grows about 70% of the na­tion’s let­tuce, ac­cord­ing to the City of Sali­nas Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Depart­ment. Since the start of Oc­to­ber, Sali­nas Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port re­ceived 16.3 inches (41.5 cen­time­ters) of rain, more than four times the 30-year av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice.


Weather ser­vice me­te­o­rol­o­gist Brian Me­jia said Cal­i­for­nia has been in­un­dated with a se­ries of what are called at­mo­spheric rivers — drench­ing weather sys­tems that have helped to al­le­vi­ate the dry­ness that pre­vi­ously gripped the state. The multi-year drought has been nearly erased, ex­cept for parts of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Ab­nor­mally-high win­ter rain­fall dis­rupted plant­ing sched­ules for let­tuce, cel­ery and spinach in coastal dis­tricts, said Ti­mothy Hartz, an ex­ten­sion agron­o­mist at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. Sow­ing in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary oc­curred dur­ing short win­dows be­tween pre­cip­i­ta­tion. Now that win­ter-planted crops are ma­tur­ing, there’s re­stricted avail­abil­ity of some leafy greens.

Some of the af­fected crops have seen height­ened de­mand in re­cent years, with the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of veg­eta­bles such as kale and cau­li­flower, said Chris­tine Lens­ing, spe­cialty crops econ­o­mist at Green­wood Vil­lage, Coloradobased CoBank.

“Peo­ple just tend to eat more of th­ese things nowa­days, be­cause peo­ple are more health wise,” she said. “That’s why th­ese sup­ply in­ter­rup­tions are felt so much more through the mar­ket­place.”

But the short­fall shouldn’t last too long. Let­tuce ma­tures in just a few months, and Sali­nas Val­ley grow­ers pro­duce mul­ti­ple crops a year.

Steve Alameda, 61, the pres­i­dent of Yuma Fresh Veg­etable As­so­ci­a­tion and who farms veg­eta­bles, melons and al­falfa at Top Fla­vor Farms in Yuma, Arizona, in­creased his acreage of let­tuce when rains halted plant­ing in Jan­uary on a sec­ond farm in Cal­i­for­nia.

“We saw an op­por­tu­nity to make some money” he said. “It’s al­ways a risk that if you grow, the mar­ket may not want it when it’s time to har­vest.”

Not all stores solely rely on West Coast sup­ply. New York- based BrightFarms, Inc. pro­duces let­tuce, toma­toes and basil in green­houses to stock su­per­mar­kets in cities in­clud­ing Chicago and Mil­wau­kee. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Paul Light­foot said the com­pany has been con­tacted by ad­di­tional re­tail­ers this year, though its out­put is al­ready spo­ken for.

“Surety of sup­ply sounds at­trac­tive all of a sud­den,” he said. — Bloomberg

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