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Lettuce market sky high as winter veg deal winds down

By
Tim Linden

The iceberg lettuce market was at $45-50 per carton on March 7, with many grower-shippers suggesting that the market will remain strong through the end of the winter vegetable deal in early April.

“We saw a meteoric rise in prices last week and there was no relief today,” said Mark McBride, veteran salesman at Coastline Family Farms, which is headquartered in Salinas, CA. “Today, (March 7) we are in the high $40s to low $50s, with some shippers quoting one price for any carton of iceberg they have — wrapped or naked, 24s or 30s. We are in pretty rare air.”

McBride said desert lettuce fields of all varieties have had sizing problems for the past several weeks. This led to cutting ahead, lower yields and the supply shortage that currently exists. He said the high prices have spilled into all the lettuce varieties with Romaine returning $40-42 per carton, red leaf and green leaf in the low $20s, and other leafy greens also seeing very strong markets.

“Volume and pounds per acre dropped dramatically a couple of weeks ago,” he said, adding that some growers-shippers are opining that sizing might improve in a couple of weeks. “But we’re running out of time. Almost everyone will be finished in the desert by April 4.”

He noted that Coastline’s broccoli and cauliflower production will transition to Salinas the week of March 14, with the other veg crops starting in Salinas the week of April 4. The broccoli market is not hot with crowns and bunches being marketed in the $8.50 to $10.50 range, but cauliflower is in the mid- to high $20s, according to McBride.

Doug Classen, vice president of sales for The Nunes Company Inc., also headquartered in Salinas, agreed that the lettuce market is hot and believes that it will remain so until at least the end of the Yuma deal in early April. He added that it was a welcome sight as the winter vegetable market has not been very good this season.

Classen quoted the same basic numbers as McBride, noting that iceberg lettuce “was a very strong $45 to $50, with Romaine in the mid-$40s and red and green leaf pushing past $20.”

Nunes will transition to Huron in the San Joaquin Valley during the last week of March on its lettuce production before moving into the Salinas Valley sometime in April. Classen expects that the California spring deal will open with a good market on lettuce as he does not see the demand exceed supply situation solving itself until the new spring production areas start producing big numbers.  Depending upon the weather, that should happen sometime around mid-April.

Denny Donovan, sales manager for Fresh Kist Produce LLC in Santa Maria, CA, said his company is waiting on the start of the local lettuce deal, “which we are expecting to happen on April 1. We only had a small desert deal this winter to take care of our contract business. Up until two-and-a-half weeks ago that looked like a good decision. Now we are wishing we had some iceberg,” he quipped.

Donovan agreed that all indicators point to a strong start to the spring deal: “We have had some cold weather recently, so I think there is going to be a little bit of gap as we get going. We’re just hoping they don’t use up all of this good market before we start.”

The Fresh Kist executive said it appears most crops are currently benefiting with good markets with the exception of broccoli. He confirmed that there are many areas currently producing broccoli, including Yuma, Arizona, the Imperial Valley in California as well as Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. “Everybody is getting good yields and the market is down,” he said.

Photo: This lettuce field near Yuma, AZ, shows yield-reducing dead, dying and small plants at the end of the field, which is probably caused by diseases and/or cold weather. Low yields are driving up the f.o.b. price as the winter vegetable deals in California and Arizona limp to the finish line.

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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