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Lettuce growers optimistic despite tough start

A springtime outbreak tied to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Ariz., combined with erratic weather in California, rising freight rates and the usual competition from regional growing areas presented a challenge for California leaf and lettuce grower-shippers as summer got underway.

But most grower-shippers seemed to view the challenge with a sense of optimism, and they had confidence that markets will improve with time.

The Food and Drug Administration said in late June that it appeared that contaminated canal water used for irrigating romaine fields in Yuma could be the cause of an E. coli outbreak that sickened 210 consumers and caused five deaths between March and June.

Despite assurances from food safety experts that California-grown product was not affected by the Yuma outbreak, many grower-shippers in the state reported continuing slow sales of romaine.

The outbreak and periods of cool weather during the start of the season “have made it kind of a tough year to this point,” Henry Dill, vice president of sales for Ippolito International LP, Salinas, Calif., said in late June.

But by mid-July, he said romaine sales were “more consistent with this time of year.”

Dill did not see any problems with the company’s crops, which include about 40 items, like leaf lettuce, romaine hearts and spinach.

“It’s just a matter of us getting back into a normal routine,” he said, with consumers using as much product as they used in the past.

Dill said he saw a small increase in consumption of iceberg, red and green lettuce during the recall as consumers sought alternatives to romaine.

Several of the top crops grown in the Salinas area, including leaf lettuce and head lettuce, increased in value by 5% to 8% compared to the previous year, agricultural commissioner Henry Gonzalez wrote in a letter accompanying the newly released 2017 Monterey County crop report.

Large swings were noted in some smaller vegetable crops, including bok choynapa cabbage and parsley, which dropped 20% to 52%, but the values of other items, including anise, chard and kale, increased 35% to 174%, the report said.

Several leaf and lettuce items were among the top crops grown in Monterey County, including:

  • leaf lettuce (No. 1), with a value of nearly $830 million;
  • head lettuce (No. 3), $502 million;
  • spinach (No. 10), $135 million;
  • kale (No. 17), $46 million;
  • spring mix (No. 18), $44.5 million;
  • anise/fennel (No. 24), nearly $18 million; and
  • chard (No. 25), $16 million.

At Pacific International Marketing Inc., Salinas, Calif., salesman Chris Deoudes said the romaine market was so-so, while mixed lettuce sales were OK.

“Green, red and butter (lettuce) have been performing pretty well,” he said, as was the iceberg market, despite some dips and spikes.

The romaine recall has had “a lasting impact on the demand,” he said.

“I think confidence has been shaken a little bit.”

Homegrown deals throughout the country also have slowed sales of lettuce and leaf items.

“The span between Memorial Day and Labor Day really messes (Salinas growers) up as a lead shipper,” he said.

California growers have to rely on bad weather in other areas to boost shipments.

Transportation costs also have slowed demand.

“These freight rates have been crazy,” he said.

Several grower-shippers plant crops in different parts of the Salinas Valley and neighboring San Benito County to deal with micro-climates that vary from region to region, said Tami Gutierrez, vice president of sales and marketing for Coastline Family Farms in Salinas.

“It gives you options for moving from one field to the next or to plan and budget based on historical weather patterns,” she said.

Quality of the many lettuce and leafy green items that Coastline grows was good as the season got underway, with moderate weather temperature spikes and drops, she said.

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