An early finish for leafy greens in Yuma, Ariz., is expected to contribute to a gap in supply before production moves back to California.
Henry Dill, sales manager at Salinas, Calif.-based Pacific International Marketing, said the company expected to finish in Yuma about 14-17 days ahead of schedule and perhaps as much as three weeks early on certain items.
Very few growers are currently on schedule, Dill said, which may lead to shortages.
Mark McBride, salesman for Salinas-based Coastline Family Farms, said Coastline has already gotten interest from processors, which he said usually happens when those companies are seeing lower yields per acre and are looking to buy more fields to keep up with demand.
McBride said Feb. 13 that Coastline might have some trouble covering normal demand in the seven weeks it has left in Yuma, and Dill voiced a similar sentiment.
“It’s going to be a challenge in March, the later part of March,” Dill said. “I would be extremely surprised if we didn’t have a pretty anxious situation for buyers and sellers from March 20 to April 15.”
Jason Lathos, manager of commodities for Salinas-based Church Brothers Farms, said the company usually finishes in Yuma at the end of March or in early April. Lathos said the end of the season this year could be up to two weeks earlier than normal.
Lathos, too, said covering normal business would be a challenge.
“Be prepared for a lot of action for the balance of the winter deal,” Lathos said. “There’s definitely a gap projected. The million-dollar question is when is that gap going to hit.”
Supply, particularly of iceberg lettuce and romaine, has been reduced significantly industry-wide because of rampant mildew in Yuma.
“You could call it the Great Mildew Plague of the Sonoran Desert Valleys, and it has created a multitude of quality concerns across a cross-section of commodities,” Anthony Mazzuca, senior director of commodity management for Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, said in an e-mail. “This is new.”
Combinations of rain, warm temperatures and humidity have contributed to the issue, which is unusual for Yuma.
“Mildew has not typically posed this significant a problem down in the desert, so growers haven’t implemented the aggressive anticipatory measures that are used in Salinas, where we know it’s a problem,” Mazzuca said. “With mildew, you really can’t play catch-up — you have to get out ahead of it. So by the time mildew was present in the region, any controls amounted to ‘too little, too late.’”
McBride said all companies growing in the area have had similar struggles.
“Everybody’s supplies have been hurt,” McBride said. “Some of the losses were pretty substantial.”
Discing of fields was “very prevalent a couple of weeks ago,” McBride said Feb. 13.
Dill said most companies have had to take that measure.
“There’s really nobody I’ve seen that’s been exempt from that,” Dill said.
Lathos said Church Brothers Farms has been trying to combat the mildew by “leapfrogging,” or getting into fields for harvest a week or two early, but the company has had problems just like others in the industry.
F.o.b. prices reported to the USDA have risen considerably in the past month. Cartons of film-wrapped 24s of iceberg lettuce from western Arizona Feb. 15 were mostly $18.50-$19.65, up from mostly $7.45-$8.65 on Jan. 17. Cartons of 12 3-count packages of romaine hearts from western Arizona Feb. 15 were mostly $16.45-$17.50, up from $10.45-$12.56.
“Mostly markets that were previously slow to react to a variety of rising market indicators have finally caught up to reality on the situation,” Mazzuca said.
The market could be pressured further because California production could start later than usual. Recent rains in growing regions there have interrupted planting, and Mazzuca said more waves of wet weather are predicted for late February.
“Flexibility in planting windows will continue to shrink, likely forcing tough decisions to eliminate plantings outright if the window is missed,” Mazzuca said. “It’s difficult to measure the degree to which the planting disruptions will affect overall availability, but there is no doubt that holes in production will manifest come mid-April into the month of May.
“An early finish to the desert coupled with the possibility of a late and unpredictable start in Salinas has grower-shippers taking an increasingly cautious position when it comes to advance commitments and pricing,” Mazzuca said.
Lathos said it was uncertain whether many grower-shippers will start late in California, noting that different companies plant in different types of soil, which affects how long they have to wait after rains to go into the fields to plant.
Dill said there would be some delay on leaf lettuce for Pacific International Marketing, but not a particularly significant one. Other weather-related effects are expected to be more problematic.
“More of an issue for us will be poor yields on the front end of the start for Salinas and then some planting gaps once Salinas has started that will extend into April and early May,” Dill said in an e-mail.
Overall, grower-shippers were not expecting a seamless transition from Arizona to California.
“It remains to be seen if an outright gap will manifest between growing regions,” Mazzuca said, “but all the signs seem to be pointing in that direction.”