(July 3, 10:50 a.m.) It’s a whole new meaning to the term “hot peppers.”

The combination of scorching temperatures and the annual harvest transition from the California desert to the San Joaquin Valley has driven f.o.b.s for bell peppers up substantially. Retailers and foodservice operators should anticipate limited supplies until mid-July, grower-shippers said.

“The hot temperatures did cause some quality issues, but most of the problems were not heat-related,” said Mike Aiton, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Sun World International LLC, Bakersfield, Calif.

Afternoon high temperatures in the 114-118 degree range, coupled with overnight lows in the 90s, accelerated the end of the desert season, he said.

“We’ve just been picking over the sticks for the past week or so,” Aiton said July 2.

The Bakersfield-area red bell pepper crop was ready to harvest by July 3, but Aiton said Sun World planned to wait until July 7 to begin picking.

“We would have had to put most of the peppers in cold storage until Monday anyway,” he said.

Eastern retailers are most affected by the heat and transition, said Sergio Fonseca, salesman at Donovan Produce Co. Inc., Salinas, Calif.

“Because of concerns over potential shriveling, there’s been a reluctance to ship the peppers to the East,” Fonseca said, “And that’s caused a little bit of a shortage back there.”

Donovan Produce plans to start picking bell peppers in the Bakersfield and Fresno areas by July 7, he said.

“The San Joaquin Valley season is going to start off light and will probably be light during the first two weeks of July,” Fonseca said.

The limited supplies are reflected in current prices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported July 1 that there were insufficient supplies of extra large and large red bell peppers from the Coachella Valley to establish a market. Prices of 1 1/9 bushel cartons of irregular size, fair-quality red bell peppers were $27.95-31.25.

The USDA reported prices of 1 1/9 bushel cartons of extra large green bell peppers from the San Joaquin Valley were $20.95-24.10 with large peppers at $21.10-22.10 and mediums at $18-20.10.

Those prices are more than double year-ago f.o.b.s. On July 2, 2007, the USDA reported the price of a half-bushel carton of Coachella Valley red bell peppers was $10.95 while 25-pound cartons of red extra large and large were fetching $14.95-16.95, and irregular size, fair-quality red bell peppers were going for $10.95.

In the San Joaquin Valley, year-ago prices for 1 1/9 bushel cartons of jumbo green bell peppers were $7.95-8.95, the department of agriculture reported. Large peppers were mostly $7-7.95 while medium peppers were at $6.45-6.95.

A consolation for retail and foodservice is that grower-shippers said quality of the new crop of red and green peppers is excellent.

Baloian Farms, Fresno, began harvesting green bell peppers in the Bakersfield area in mid-June, said sales manager Jeremy Lane. That harvest continues until about the end of July, he said. The company’s Bakersfield-area red bell pepper harvest began June 30.

Next up for Baloian Farms, Lane said, was the Huron-area green bell peppers with picking scheduled to begin July 7. Quality of the Huron peppers is as good as or better than the Bakersfield crop, he said.

Two of Coachella’s major grower-shippers, Prime Time Sales LLC and Peter Rabbit Farms, were wrapping up red bell pepper production the week of June 30.