Freezing California Lettuce Boosts Salad Costs: Chart of the Day

The cost of salad staples including lettuce probably will rise after frigid weather last month hurt winter vegetable crops in California and Arizona, the biggest U.S. growers.

The CHART OF THE DAY shows prices soared when temperatures plunged in the neighboring counties of Imperial, California, and Yuma, Arizona, located on the Mexican border. In 2011, when El Centro, California, had freezing weather on Jan. 1 and Feb. 3, iceberg lettuce jumped 36 percent to $1.277 a pound by March 31 from the end of January, government data show. This year, temperatures dropped below freezing Jan. 5, Jan. 13 and Jan. 15.

“The whole pipeline is empty right now,” said Jack Vessey, who runs Vessey & Co., a family farm that produces about two dozen vegetables on more than 10,000 acres in Holtville, California, which dubs itself the carrot capital of the world. “There are empty warehouses, and there’s not a whole lot of lettuce on the store shelves. Everybody’s trying to get these orders filled, and then all of a sudden, the prices go up.”

Vegetables including lettuce and cabbage don’t grow during freezes and can only be picked when thawed, delaying the harvest and limiting the time when crops can be collected, Vessey said. The supply shortage forces growers to sell lower-quality vegetables, he said. Crates of Imperial Valley iceberg lettuce have more than quadrupled to $26.64-$27.10 on Jan. 31 from $5.50-$6.64 a month earlier, government data show. A crate has 24 heads of lettuce.

‘Double Whammy’

“I’m not seeing that supply equilibrium coming back anytime soon” because of temperature extremes in the past two months, J.P. LaBrucherie, the president of the Imperial Valley Growers Association, said in a telephone interview from El Centro. “It was unseasonably warm, so some was rotten, then all of a sudden, it got really cold. It’s a double whammy.”

While California is the nation’s top grower of fresh lettuce, accounting for half of U.S. output, Imperial and Yuma counties produce about 90 percent of supply in winter months, LaBrucherie said. Lettuce was the state’s largest vegetable crop at $1.5 billion in 2011, and was the eighth-largest agricultural commodity, behind milk, almonds, grapes, cattle, nursery plants, berries and hay, government data show.

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