(Jan. 21) OXNARD, Calif. — A drop-off in imports and a less crowded domestic shipping scene is giving California celery grower-shippers a reason to be happy.

“I think there’s less celery out of Mexico and less celery out of the desert, and the market has been good,” said Doug Lowthorp, salesman for Deardorff-Jackson Co., Oxnard. “The market has been good since we started this season, and I think the reason for that is there has been less celery planted all over than the last two years.”

Several shippers said there was less acreage planted on speculation about what the Thanksgiving market would do, and prices have reflected the absence of the glut seen in the past two years.

In mid-January 2003, California’s southern district experienced slow trading, with f.o.b.s at $5.10-6.10 to for cartons of 2 and 2½ dozen, $4.60-5.60 for 3 dozen and $5-5.25 for 4 dozen. Santa Maria f.o.b.s at that time ranged between $4.20-4.70 for cartons of 3 dozen and $5-5.25 for 2 dozen.

On Jan. 20, shippers in Oxnard, which ships 80% to 90% of all California celery at this time of the year, were quoting $12-13 for 2 dozen, $12.35 on 2 ½ dozen and $11.35 on 3 and 4 dozen. Cartons of hearts were priced $14-16.

“The markets have been pretty good since Thanksgiving,” said Russ Widerburg, salesman at Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard. “We started three weeks before Thanksgiving, and I think the market has dipped to $6-7 once.”

Production in southern Florida could put some pressure on the market, said Mark Goss, general manager of Cal-Cel Marketing Inc., Oxnard.

Imports from Mexico have lagged behind last season, with only 4.18 million pounds shipped as of Jan. 10 — a third of last year’s 12.44 million pounds at that time.

Yuma, Ariz., beset by heat and then cold in recent months, is seeing production setbacks, but shippers said the desert deal is minor at the start of the year.

Oxnard encountered some earlier quality problems, with pith and blight, Goss said.

“I don’t know that there’s less production, but I think some guys were caught with quality problems,” leading to fewer shipments, he said. “Acreagewise, I’d say Oxnard is on an even keel.”

Sammy Duda, vice president and general manager of Duda California/Gene Jackson Farms Inc., Salinas, however, said several factors brought fewer plantings this season. Orange County strawberry growers are planting in the Oxnard area more and more each year, Duda said, leading to higher land leases, and celery growers are also responding to several years of overproduction.