Desert frosts nip lettuceFrost conditions that hit desert production areas in California and Arizona just before New Year’s are likely to tighten supplies of lettuce and send prices higher in January.

“Today’s frost is the hardest and heaviest thus far in both the Imperial Valley and Yuma,” Mark McBride, salesman at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Family Farms, said Dec. 29. Lighter freezes had begun Dec. 26, he said.

Grower-shippers reported losing big chunks of harvest time while waiting, often until 11 a.m. or noon, for fields to warm.

“We’re going to lose probably 40% of our production every day as long as we have weather this cold that keeps us out of the field until the sun thaws it out,” said John Burton, general manager of sales and cooler for Coachella, Calif.-based Peter Rabbit Farms.

In the Coachella Valley, temperatures ranged from 30 to 32 degrees at hillside operations — like Peter Rabbit Farms — to 22 to 25 on the valley floor.

“It’s in the 20s as well in the colder spots in the Yuma Valley,” Burton said.

The cold snap is expected to affect lettuce and leaf items including romaine and iceberg; green leaf and red leaf lettuce; butter lettuce; and spinach.

“There are going to be shortages in the next week to 10 days, we believe,” Burton said Dec. 29. “Just the fact that you’re starting late is enough to cause a shortage, but on top of that you’re harvesting fields that are way in advance. Once cold weather hits the ones you’re hoping to get to, it slows their growth and exacerbates the whole problem.”

Before the freezes, there was a broad consensus that desert vegetables were two to three weeks ahead of normal production due to the warm weather pattern that’s persisted in California throughout 2014. Grower-shippers hoped for lower temperatures, but by the time they arrived, it proved anticlimactic.

“It’s too little, too late,” McBride said. “It will slow down the fields that haven’t been harvested and could result in a light spot as the succeeding fields get back into some type of normal progression. But if it stays cold for long, it will tighten up supply significantly.”

“It’s been running ahead of schedule for a while,” said Eric Schwartz, chief executive officer of United Vegetable Growers Cooperative. “It’s definitely backed up. There’s a gap coming.”

A 40% to 60% chance of rain was forecast in Yuma for Dec. 31, potentially hastening that gap’s arrival.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, citrus growers were staring down the barrel of forecasts calling for overnight lows of 28 to 30 degrees Dec. 30 through Jan. 2 in places like Fresno, Lindsay and Porterville. But that’s within the range of what frost protection measures typically compensate for.

Row crops such as desert lettuce were at greater risk — promising to liven up a market that’s been pretty stagnant for grower-shippers.

“The lettuce deal left a lot to be desired going into the holidays,” McBride said.

Cartons of 24-count romaine heads shipped for mostly $6 to $7.35 on Dec. 24, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — nearly identical to year-ago prices. Packs of 12 three-count romaine hearts were $9.35 to $10.56, down from $10.05 to $11.61 on the same date in 2013.