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Winter weather hampers fresh vegetable markets

Issue Date: February 24, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman

The effects of the deadly winter storms that have enveloped the Midwest, South and East echo on the winter-vegetable farms of the Imperial Valley.

"It's fairly warm out here and cold back there," said John Hawk, who grows vegetables near Holtville. "Not a good combination."

Hawk and fellow Holtville-area vegetable farmer Jack Vessey attributed a mid-February market glut to the freezing weather gripping much of the rest of the country.

"The grocery stores aren't buying lettuce or any kind of leafy greens," Vessey said, "because they don't have anywhere to refrigerate it right now"—a reference to last week's widespread power outages in Texas.

In contrast, the Imperial Valley is expected to be warm and sunny this week, with temperatures in the 80s—which may worsen the oversupply.

"If you're in the 80-85-degree weather, that brings on product very fast," Hawk said. "That's not going to help us."

In those conditions, he noted, crops will "start growing fast, and everything's going to be ready all in the same week. Those are things that hurt you."

Vessey said his growing conditions have been "perfect," outside of about an inch of rain a couple of weeks ago.

"An inch of rain in the desert, where it's flat and it doesn't drain well, causes a lot of issues," he said.

Vessey said he's starting to see some of those issues with Sclerotinia, or white mold, on various leafy-green crops.

Once the vegetables leave the fields, they're off to the big unknown otherwise called the 2021 vegetable market.

"The markets have been extremely unpredictable and volatile since the pandemic hit, and it looks like it might be that way for several more months until everything gets sorted out," said Steve Brazeel, whose Orange County-based company raises a variety of winter vegetables in the Imperial Valley.

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Imperial Valley vegetable farmers cut back on plantings this year after watching their markets tank overnight early in 2020.

"We dropped some commodities as much as 15%, some upwards of 20%," Vessey said. "I think that was the right number, based on the market" at the end of November and into December, he added.

"We're down on acres on everything from head lettuce to romaine lettuce to spinach, spring mix, cabbage—everything's down," he said. "Everybody took a shave, which needed to happen. If we all planted the same amount of acres, it'd really be an oversupply situation."

Some of the surplus land has been fallowed for the year, he said, and other acreage has been planted to hay or alfalfa, or leased or subleased to other farmers.

Figuring out exactly how many acres to plant in the midst of a pandemic "has been very challenging," Brazeel said.

"With our leafy green products, we need to plan several months ahead, and when you don't know if your customers will be open or not, that is a challenge," he said.

"Heading into the winter 2020 season, we cut our plantings 25% across the board in anticipation of business volume being down," Brazeel said. "We did add additional volume on the more hearty items like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, and were way more conservative on iceberg, romaine and leaf lettuce."

Vessey said market prices had been halfway decent until mid-January.

"It wasn't high markets," Vessey said. "It was kind of like a break-even, hopefully-we're-covering-our-growing-cost kind of market, which is a win at this point."

From mid-January onward, markets began tailing off, he said.

"Market prices are in big decline right now," Vessey said.

As of Feb. 19, a carton of iceberg lettuce from Imperial and Coachella valleys was selling for $7.50 to $9.50, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That same carton earned $9 to $11.95 on Jan. 17; the year before, in January 2020—before the pandemic hit the U.S. full force—that carton sold for $24.85 to $27.65.

Romaine has been similarly depressed. A carton from California's winter growing valleys sold for $6 to $8.95 last week, compared to $8.85 to $12.95 a month ago and $10.95 to $14.95 in January 2020.

As a result, Vessey said, he began seeing "walk-bys"—unharvested fields—in early to mid-February.

"We're leaving, it seems like, an acre here, an acre there, 5 acres there," he said. "We're starting to leave crop in the field because there's not enough demand."

Hawk said he hopes once the fierce winter weather lets up and trucks can get through again, "maybe there will be more restaurants that are opening, at least, for inside and outside dining."

"I think that's going to help a lot, and once they get into warmer weather, I think that'll probably pick things up. But right now, it's pretty dismal," he said.

"We don't know what normal is," Hawk said. "A year ago, if we'd have tried to predict what kind of year we'd have, I think we'd all be surprised. We would've never thought it would go this long, this far and this hard."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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