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Vegetable growers hit jackpot with higher prices

January 05, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

HOLTVILLE — No flashing light is spinning overhead, no peppy music is blaring, but local vegetable growers have hit a jackpot after three years of feeding money into the agri-business machine.

Keith Mayberry, vegetable crops adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension here, said vegetable prices are hot right now.

"Lettuce is selling at the Los Angeles Terminal Produce Market for a dollar a head. Broccoli is over a dollar a bunch, cauliflower is a dollar and a quarter and leaf lettuce prices are also very good — but not as good as iceberg lettuce," he said.

Unfortunately for local growers, the majority of the profit has been scooped into the buckets of out-of-area shippers.

Local vegetable growers own little of the produce in their fields since they lost so much money over the past years, Mayberry said.

"They now take little or no part in the risk or potential profit," he added.

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Ben Abatti of El Centro's Abatti Produce said, "You have to be a year-round shipper to deal with the changes (price fluctuations.)"

Abatti used to ship his own produce. This past season he contracted out the work.

Mayberry said year-round shippers have made it difficult for locals to capture a large percentage of the profit from the harvests of their crops.

The big-time shippers are able to operate in two production areas. Most have shipping operations along the coast and a desert shipper, Mayberry said.

This allows year-round shippers to weather climate changes and consistently fill the orders of large supermarket chains.

Local growers have a small window of opportunity during the late fall months to plant a crop, harvest it and get it to market.

If the prices aren't good, the growers don't make money during that window.

"Where do they get the capital to keep playing the game?" Mayberry asked. "They don't."

Mayberry said year-round shippers are able to lose money at one of their operations and make it back somewhere else.

He used a gambling metaphor to explain the situation for growers here.

"Having a good market now is not producing the windfall profits that some anti-farming interests would have one believe. It's kind of like hitting a small jackpot at midnight after you lost several hundred dollars on the slots during the day," Mayberry said.

Local growers can be compared to a guy who throws a few quarters in a machine every once in a while.

"It's hard to win that way," Mayberry said.

Abatti said the end result of this season's good prices for Valley growers will be "a little more produce planted next year."

Even then, the "little more" won't come close to the huge swaths of acreage devoted to produce production in the past.

Abatti said it would take drastic legislative measures to bring about a return of those heady days.

"The laws would have to be the same here as Arizona, Texas, Florida and Mexico," he said.

Abatti said big-time growers and shippers pulled out of the Valley and went to Arizona or out-of-country after "Cesar Chavez struck us in 1979 and Jerry Brown stacked the deck against us."

The cost of labor here is $1.60 more per hour here than Arizona, according to Abatti.

"In Mexico they can get $5-a- day labor," he added.

Short of an unlikely change in federal or state law, the produce business here will continue to be dominated by out-of-area shippers and huge supermarket chains.

Of the chains, Abatti said, "They got a hammer on us."

It used to be a grower could develop a business relationship with a buyer that allowed for fluctuations in supply.

If there was too much lettuce during a boom time, the supermarket would try to "sell two heads of lettuce instead of one."

Now, "Super chains control everything in the business."

To a large extent, the chains have kept produce prices standardized — and weather out of the equation — by buying produce in huge bulk quantities from the big shippers with multiple operations.

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com

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