(Nov. 18) Significant volumes might be few and far between as grower-shippers in California’s Imperial Valley make it through the first few weeks of their winter vegetable harvests.

At least, that’s the general trend most grower-shippers in the valley were bracing for in mid-November, said Michael Boggiatto, president of Boggiatto Produce Inc., Salinas, Calif.

Much of the blame for this prediction falls on temperatures, which Boggiatto said were about 15 to 20 degrees above normal in the summer and early fall.

“The way it looks right now they could be in short supply,” he said in mid-November. “I don’t see the romaine cupping over to form the heart. Once that stuff starts going to seed, it’s not going to close in. It was just way too hot for too long.”

Boggiatto Produce ships artichokes, romaine hearts, cabbage and leaf lettuce out of the valley. Boggiatto said romaine acreage increased about 10% this year over 2002, but he said other plantings remained the same.

110 DEGREES

Most desert vegetable shippers like to see temperatures in the mid-80s, but on some days during the Yuma, Ariz., vegetable deal this season, temperatures reached about 110 degrees.

Boggiatto said the early heat would cause some bolting in his company’s romaine crop.

However, he said cooler temperatures in mid-November would help prepare the Imperial Valley’s crops for harvests the last week of November and first week of December.

Temperatures were near 80 degrees in mid-November, but they were expected to be in the 60s and 70s during the second half of the month.

Five Crowns Marketing, Brawley, Calif., expected to harvest its Imperial Valley crops a little later than Boggiatto Produce, said Bill Colace, a partner in the company.

“We see the start dates probably being on schedule. We just see our first couple plantings being a little lighter than normal,” Colace said. “The stands are a little bit light, but what lettuce, romaine and cauliflower that are there look very, very strong. I think we’ll have a very nice crop.”

Five Crowns’ cauliflower deal was expected to begin about Dec. 10 and end the first week of March. Plantings of cauliflower this season were down 20% for the company, Colace said.

Its romaine and leaf lettuce deals were expected to start at the end of December and end the same time as cauliflower, while Colace said asparagus would be harvested Jan. 1 through about mid-April.

PRICES

Cauliflower out of Salinas and Watsonville was priced at $13.10-16.10 in mid-November for cartons of film-wrapped 12s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cartons of 9s and 16s were priced at $10.10-12.10. Prices in 2002 about that time were in the $20 range.

Romaine cartons of 24s out of the same area in mid-November got $14.10-16.10, according to the USDA. Cartons of 12s were priced at $12.75-14.60. Prices in 2002 at that time were similar.

The USDA did not list asparagus prices in mid-November.

Shippers were reluctant to predict what prices winter vegetables out of the valley might bring this season.

Colace said romaine out of Yuma, Ariz., in mid-November was priced in the low $20 range, which was high for that time of year.

“It does look like, on the lettuce side of it, there will probably be some short supplies through the month of December,” Colace said. “Then I think we should get into normal supplies after the first of the year.”

Last season, Boggiatto said, romaine was $5 during the first couple of months of the deal. However, the crop brought more than $10 in April and peaked at $15-25 in May.

This season, the foodservice industry might have a greater effect on lettuce pricing than it has in the past, said Cliff Smith, owner of Imperial Sales, Holtville, Calif. He said prices could be lucrative in 2004.

“This is the first winter vegetable deal that they’ve had to go through when they’ve increased all their salads in their stores,” Smith said. “With the unpredictability of a glitch in production in this deal, which always happens somehow because of the weather, then we could see a fairly decent price structure.”

Imperial ships lettuce, cauliflower and asparagus.

Smith said lettuce stands were about 70% of normal production as the company prepared to start harvests, but he said there were no quality problems.

“The stands on the lettuce didn’t come up at first,” he said. “We’ll get out of that. We’ll have normal production within the first two weeks after we start.”

Five Crowns’ Colace agreed that production would rebound with the heat subsiding in November. He said normal volumes would start about 10 days after his company’s first harvest.

“Temperatures right now are perfect,” he said. “This is the place you want to live right now.”