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Atmospheric River Storm to Aggravate US Produce Supply Woes

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The atmospheric river storm descending on California will likely worsen existing produce supply gaps into this spring, pushing already elevated retail prices for produce aisle staples like lettuce, broccoli and strawberries higher. 

California’s produce industry has been battered by erratic weather since early last fall, as we wrote about here and here, but this latest bout of extreme precipitation is particularly problematic because it is arriving just before winter growing seasons in Florida, Mexico, and Arizona wind down and as California’s produce growing season ramps up. 

By early April, California takes over as the US’ primary strawberry source, producing about 188 million pounds of strawberries in April before hitting a monthly production peak of around 267 million pounds in late May on average over the last five years. During the first week of March, the state shipped only 2.3 million pounds of strawberries, about 19% of its usual haul for that week based on the 10-year average. 

At a minimum, this storm could cause delays for California’s strawberry harvest in Oxnard, the state’s biggest strawberry producing area for this time of year, but it could also damage existing crops and flood fields in Santa Maria and Salinas, setting back new plantings. 

The procession of atmospheric rivers that pummeled the state in late December through mid-January swamped fields, leading to record low shipped strawberry volumes in January. 

By February, California’s shipped strawberry volumes rebounded to the 10-year average before dropping 65% last week after late February rains. In February, Florida’s strawberry crop was able to compensate for California’s production declines, but Florida’s strawberry season wraps up this month. Mexico’s strawberry production, which is past its peak, drops off after April.  

Often during seasonal crop transitions, US produce markets face a higher risk of price increases and supply disruptions. 

Heading into this spring, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and other leafy greens grown in Yuma, Arizona, are vulnerable to seasonal, transition-related supply gaps. In early April, as temperatures in Yuma rise, the area’s growing season for these crops draws to a close, and producers begin to move their crops and related machinery and equipment to Salinas, California, where temperatures tend to be favorable through the fall. A similar seasonal transition takes place in November, when producers move from Salinas to Yuma for warmer winter growing conditions. 

This winter, however, Yuma experienced consistently cool weather that suppressed production volumes, particularly for lettuce. The Yuma season’s low lettuce production means that there is little supply to fall back on after this latest atmospheric river storm. 

The storm, which is forecast to dump two to three inches of rain in Monterey County, could complicate producers’ transition and Salinas Valley planting plans, further straining lettuce supplies at a time of year when demand for salad usually picks up. Lettuce shipping point prices are not yet reflecting these looming supply constraints, in part because demand for lettuce is currently low. 

Typically, California’s Salinas Valley is responsible for about 80% of the US’ vegetable production from April to early July. 

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