Desert vegetables, growers in winter doldrums

01/08/2014 04:55:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Courtesy Peter Rabbit FarmsHarvesters cut romaine lettuce for Coachella, Calif.-based Peter Rabbit Farms Jan. 7.The end of the holidays and the recovery of lettuce and other items from early December freezes left grower-shippers yearning for increased demand on desert vegetable crops.

“A lot of activities go on and vegetables aren’t always part of the menu,” said Mark McBride, salesman at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce. “That’s expected during the holidays. Now we’re hoping that since they didn’t eat enough vegetables, they’re going to start kicking into gear, lose a few pounds and eat healthy again.”

But exceptionally cold winter weather in the Midwest and on the East Coast also created doubts that shoppers will crowd the produce aisle anytime soon.

“When we get mild conditions on the West Coast it pushes those cold fronts over top of us and into the Midwest and East,” said Sammy Duda, vice president at Duda Farm Fresh Foods. “We have warmer than normal conditions creating better than normal supplies while demand is slack, so it’s a tough combination.”

Cauliflower remains a strong market for growers, but due more to acreage trends than shifting weather.

“Today cauliflower is $17 and we’re desperately looking for customers on all the rest of the items,” Duda said Jan. 7. “Cauliflower is unique among the normal lineup over the last 12 to 15 months. I suspect the acres have been cut back so much that more times than not, there’s not enough supply to meet the demand.”

Most cartons of film-wrapped white 12s cauliflower shipped for $15.65 to $17.35 on Jan. 6 out of Arizona, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from $13.50 to $14.65 a year ago.

Broccoli – another cruciferous crop – is a comparative letdown for growers, but some would not be surprised to see a bump in price soon.

“We’re thinking the market on broccoli will perk up a little more before it’s done,” McBride said. “We’re going to be getting into a bit of a light spot in the desert. The middle part of January could be a little dicey for supply.” That would be a lingering consequence of Thanksgiving rains and the cold that quickly followed.

Broccoli in 20-pound loose crown cut shipped from Arizona for $9.56 to $10.61 Jan. 6, according to the USDA — much better for buyers than the $20 to $23 they paid a year ago, when icing hit that crop. In California, crown cut is shipping for $8.50 to $11.50 out of the Imperial and Coachella valleys.

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