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Lettuce prices reach an unprecedented level

great news — for some

March 16, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

BRAWLEY — Lettuce prices have reached an unprecedented level, a local grower says.

Since mid-December, the prices for iceberg lettuce have been higher than $40 a carton, according to Joe Colace, president of Brawley's Five Crowns Marketing.

It's "unprecedented," Colace said, because in the past, "If we had two weeks where we had $20 a carton — that would be considered a wonderful period."

Instead of a couple weeks, the prices have been high for the past few months, peaking at nearly $50 a carton recently from $12 a carton just months ago.

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That's great news for Imperial Valley lettuce farmers who have weathered years of bad returns.

However, a number of farmers aren't reaping a major windfall from the price spike, according to local growers.

Colace said, "Seventy-five percent of the product is on a contracted price."

When growers plant their crops on a contractual basis, the price of the crop is negotiated before it is ever planted. The growers don't cash in when the market flies sky high but don't take a hit when it drops low.

"The trend has become over the years, more and more acreage of iceberg lettuce has a commitment on it from salad plants or processors," Colace said.

The few farmers who did cash in locally are the smaller-operation growers who control their own shipping plants.

According to a story released by The Associated Press, it's unclear how long the high prices will continue. However long they do remain, the high prices and low supply now will have a marked effect on next year's planting and the price of lettuce at local supermarkets.

Both Colace and Holtville-based grower Jack Vessey said more acres of lettuce will be planted here this year than last.

Asked why acreage was lower this past season, Vessey said the big processors and shippers called after Sept. 11 and told local growers to cut back on acreage. Because most growers only plant according to how much they can sell after harvest, the growers cut back.

A few, including Colace, planted the same number of acres they had planned on and were able to take advantage of the price spike.

Vessey said, "After Sept. 11, people weren't going out to eat as much. Since most of the lettuce grown locally goes to food services for restaurants, we get a call, ‘Let's cut back on our planting.' "

After acres are cut, processing plants run short and prices rise.

Another factor contributing to the lack of supply at processing plants was the unusual weather last season.

Vessey said, "There were so many days of lettuce ice. It was one of the coldest winters we've ever had. Back east in Boston the weather was in the 80s. With weather like that people aren't going to the store to buy Campbell's (soup), they're going to buy lettuce."

The weather combination made for a "perfect market," Vessey said.

Colace said the cold snap affected the size of this season's lettuce heads and the yields per field.

"Quality this year has been good, but the size has been small," he said.

Since lettuce growers make their money on the weight of lettuce taken from each field, size is important.

"It's all about pounds, how many pounds go into that bag," Vessey said.

Whereas in the past a grower might get 34,000 to 35,000 pounds per acre, the cold snap this year dropped yields to as low as 20,000 pounds per acre.

Fewer pounds per bag meant processors and shippers had to look around to find more lettuce.

Vessey noted certain processing companies were "trying to find every little patch they could. They didn't have enough acres."

It's not going to be any easier to find more robust patches in the next few weeks.

Colace is heading to Huron and Salinas to check on fields there that are four weeks behind because of recent cold weather.

Vessey said farmers locally will be harvesting two to four weeks later than normal because of higher demand and a longer season caused by the weather.

"Usually we're done by mid-March or early April. Now it's mid-April," he said.

Once all the lettuce is harvested, increased acreage is planted and prices start to fall again the latest lettuce renaissance will ebb to a close.

But it was good while it lasted.

"It was a wonderful year," Colace said.

Vessey said a certain farmer did very well this year, "and good for him."

This season, while better than most, will only allow lettuce farmers to make back the money invested and lost during previous seasons, according to local experts.

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

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