(Dec. 16) Spurred by high temperatures, Arizona lettuce shippers were harvesting up to two weeks ahead of schedule, but they expect a short supply gap leading into Christmas following low temperatures the second and third weeks of December.

Ice on the heads of lettuce, not uncommon in Yuma’s winter crop, forced harvest crews to wait six hours on some days. With tighter supplies, markets rose the week of Dec. 12, and shippers expect prices to stay firm through Christmas.

On Dec. 13, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported central and western Arizona iceberg f.o.b.s at $9-12.35 for cartons of 24-count unwrapped heads and $9.50-13.85 for 24 film-wrapped heads. Most shippers contacted on Dec. 13 said they were quoting $12.85 for a carton of wrapped lettuce, although they expected it to increase slightly by the end of the week.

The Imperial Valley iceberg harvest began slowly the second week of December, and the USDA reported cartons of naked lettuce at $9.35 and wrapped lettuce at $10.85.

On top of that, some shippers were tacking a 21-23 cent fuel surcharge on each carton, and one source said transport costs for a full trailer from the West Coast to the East Coast were up to $6,000.

Shippers welcomed the tighter supplies and the increased f.o.b.s that came with the harvest slowdown. Leading into the second weekend of December, the USDA reported the high end of the market for cartons of unwrapped iceberg lettuce was $7.35, although most cartons were $1 lower than that, and a carton of film-wrapped lettuce was $7-8.96, with a few as low as $6.55.

Romaine prices also rose, to $8.45 for a 24-count carton from Yuma and $8.95 from California’s Imperial Valley.

“We were actually way ahead of ourselves, so having this cold weather has caused us to run into a little bit of a short supply gap,” said Greg Beach, vice president of sales at Steinbeck Country Produce, Salinas, Calif. “The market is reacting with higher f.o.b.s in response to the shorter supplies.”

Bengard Ranch Inc., Salinas, was 10 days to two weeks ahead of schedule up until Dec. 5-6, when the temperatures first dropped, president Bardin Bengard said.

“We’ve had delays of six to seven hours from our (harvest) start times, and one day we didn’t get started until 12:30 (p.m.),” Bengard said.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually brings lowered lettuce demand, he said, so the slowdown should correspond with the demand and keep the f.o.b. momentum up.

“Demand seems to be level this time of the year, but with the shorter supply, I think it’s causing any open product to be sold at a little higher price,” said Bill Colace, vice president and owner of Five Crowns Marketing, Brawley, Calif.