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Hot veg market could be short-circuited by national unrest

Demand exceeded supply for several vegetable commodities during the first week of June, but the protests and national unrest around the country could impact that by creating supply chain issues. At least that is the view of veteran Denny Donovan, sales manager of Fresh Kist Produce LLC, based in Santa Maria, CA.

“We could tell in the middle of May that we were going to run into some shortage situations this week,” he said. “Broccoli and cauliflower were short the week of June 1 and should remain short the week of June 8. There was enough iceberg lettuce for June 1, but we should be very short for June 8.”

Donovan said the shortage situation is the result of late March/early April California rains that interrupted planting schedules. He added that a warm spring brought on some fields faster than expected, which exacerbated the situation.

“We have some very good markets right now,” he said on June 2, noting that broccoli crowns were selling for $18 to $20 (f.o.b.), while cauliflower was in the $14 to $15 range. “Iceberg lettuce is $13 to $15 but there is going to be very little around next week.”

Donovan said the lack of supply should lead to a rising market for those three commodities, as well as others, but he could sense some uneasiness in the orders coming in this week as a result of the nationwide protests.

“These protests are occurring in cities all over the country. You can sense that some people are backing off on orders because they are not certain what’s going to happen,” he said.

Some supermarkets around the country have been subject to looting and shut down because of the protests. Just how much disruption the protests cause could determine how high the market price goes. “Looking at the supply situation, broccoli and cauliflower should go much higher,” he said.

Mark McBride of Coastline Family Farms, based in Salinas, CA, also noted strong sales on many different vegetable items, which he said was a welcome sight for growers. “This has been an unusual year, to say the least,” he said, on June 1.

He noted that the coronavirus pandemic has led to an inconsistent ordering situation through much of the spring and the industry also went through a long period of oversupply, which caused a depressed market for many items.

McBride said the current situation is favorable for growers. Reluctant to predict how long it will last, the veteran Coastline salesman said there is a substantial list of items with good markets as June dawns. “Supplies are heavy on green leaf, red leaf and green onions, but most other items are looking good right now,” he said.

He agreed that the biggest culprit was planting interruptions in the March/April time frame. Besides inclement weather that affected planting schedules, he noted the coronavirus shutdowns began at that time and many growers adjusted their acreage a bit because of the uncertainty and loss of foodservice business. He added that those planting adjustments have continued all spring, even if only at a minimal level.

“Another thing is that growers have a tendency to reduce their acreage for the summer because of the home-grown deals all over the country. It’s not just one factor,” he said. “There are several things that have combined to make these good markets. We’re just going to take it one day at a time and not make a lot of predictions about how long it will last.”

McBride said that supplies should remain fairly steady over the next couple of months, indicating that he is not expecting a spike that would result in an oversupply of product. He did opine, however, that it would be prudent to expect that the short-lived local deals around the country did not cut back their acreage due to the coronavirus.

“I don’t know for sure, but those growers have one crop for the year; you would think they wouldn’t cut back,” he added.

Further south, in Oxnard, CA, Russell Widerburg, sales manager at Boskovich Farms Inc., also welcomed the solid vegetable market that greeted June. “All things considered, we have a relatively good market for many items.”

He did single out green onions, a mainstay at Boskovich, as an item with a depressed market because of good supplies. “All the bunch items are doing well. Spinach is good. Brussels sprouts and bok choy, celery and lettuce have good markets.”

Widerburg said Boskovich did lose a significant percentage of its foodservice business this spring with the closing of that sector by COVID-19, but that is starting to come back. “Luckily, retailer and wholesaler demand has been better than usual.”

He noted that restaurants in Ventura County, where Boskovich is headquartered, started reopening in late May, and the company’s orders from foodservice distributors have seen an uptick in the last 10 days. “We are expecting that business to start to come back,” he said.

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