Spot-market prices for desert iceberg and romaine lettuce have already increased sharply following an early February freeze, and grower-shippers say the damage will cause uncertainty in supplies and f.o.b.s in March and create pressure on the contract processing market.

Average loss in yield from the Feb. 3 chill was 10%-15%, said Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting at Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms.

“We were seeing ice to the fifth leaf down,” said Barrientos. “We’re having to peel quite a bit of blistering, resulting in a higher percentage of (cartons of) 30. There’s less of the ideal size, 24s, on the market.”

Prices on 24-count iceberg cartons from Yuma were $21.56-23.00 on Feb. 7, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just a week before they went for $12.50-13.55. Year-ago prices were about $6.

“It was 25 degrees in the south Yuma Valley,” said John D’Arrigo, president of Salinas, Calif.-based D’Arrigo Bros. Co. “Somerton was 29 degrees at 8:30 a.m. That’s bone cold. Lettuce can’t handle it.”

Romaine was also higher, with cartons of 24 running $25.45-25.60. That was up from $18.50-20.55 a week before. Year-ago prices were $5-6.

The new year brought a holiday-weekend freeze to Yuma, Ariz. Epidermal peeling and an airborne sclerotinia fungus were already issues before the latest round of bad weather.

“Where 80% to 90% of a romaine head was useable before, it’s maybe 60% now,” said Sammy Duda, vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods. “The crop was not lost or killed — setback in growth is more of an issue. Useable produce has declined rapidly; that really impacts the fresh-cut process guys as they sift through damaged product.”

Duda said Feb. 9 that assessing the damage has been a rollercoaster ride.

“The first day of the freeze, you thought ‘devastation,’” he said. “Then two or three days later it seemed not so bad. Then you go, ‘Uh-oh.’ And finally you think you know what you have.”

But that knowledge has not yet set in.

“It adds some uncertainty to the market for three to six weeks down the road,” he said.

D’Arrigo predicted at least another six weeks of problems.

“We’re in for a wild ride,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to make your top grade. A lot will have to go into secondary labels.”

Quality control is critical in the coming weeks, D’Arrigo said. “The industry will have to be careful about quality control as crop moves around the country. You can’t have these temperatures without showing heavy blistering and freeze burns and potentially a decay-and-rot situation in transit.

“I’ve never in my lifetime seen this amount of ice and cold in Yuma. Maybe the old-timers have seen it.”

The freeze was widespread in Arizona.

“The east side or the Yuma Valley side, Somerton and Winterhaven were all pretty much (affected) the same,” Barrientos said.

Uncertainty ahead for romaine, iceberg

Courtesy Coastline Produce

Pat Ryan, field superintendent for romaine and leaf vegetables for Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce, checks a field of green leaf lettuce in the Imperial Valley the first week of February.