(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 26)
Yuma, Ariz., iceberg lettuce prices spiked in January as supply took a bigger than normal winter hit from a fungus, leading to decreased supplies in February.

Grower-shippers estimated yields are down 10% to 20% from normal due to the sclerotinia fungus and weather-related damage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some harvested heads early to minimize loss.

“Iceberg supply is going to be light through February,” said Art Barrientos, vice president of harvesting for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms. “I just don’t see us an industry getting back to normal volumes. In a few weeks we’ll know more about March lettuce; the sclerotinia presence is not as obvious there.”

Update: Cartons of 24 iceberg heads went for $22.56-24.50 on Jan. 18, nearly doubling the price in a week, before retreating to the $18.50-20.56 range by Jan. 24. Year-ago prices were $12-13.

“There have been some limited outbreaks of (sclerotinia) in the past but this is the first time it’s reached this magnitude anywhere that I’ve heard of in my 30 years in the business,” said Mark McBride, sales manager at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce.

“Yuma’s worse than the Imperial Valley,” said Michael Boggiatto, president of Salinas-based Boggiatto Produce, which grows romaine in the California valley.

“This sclerotinia is a different strain,” he said. “It appears to be airborne, not soilborne, and affects the upper plant instead of the root. People have gone through entire fields and not harvested, it’s so bad. But some fields aren’t affected at all.”

Though both commodities and regions were affected, iceberg out of Yuma suffered most.

“Supplies will be a little lighter with romaine but probably not as impacted on a percent basis as iceberg,” Barrientos said.

It was no doomsday, but limited supply made for an active market.

“Customers are struggling to make their orders and they have to pay a higher price,” Boggiatto said. “As long as you’ve got reasonable supply you can come out OK.”

Update: Yuma romaine prices for 24-count cartons were $24.35-25.50 on Jan. 24, the USDA said. That was up from $14.56-15.50 two weeks before. Prices in California’s Imperial, Coachella and Palo Verde valleys ranged $18.45-22.47 on Jan. 24. Year-ago prices in Arizona and California were $8-9.

The trimming necessitated by damage to Imperial Valley romaine’s outer leaves cut yields.

“If a bin has 200 heads normally, we’ve in some cases been putting in as much as 600, 700 heads,” Boggiatto said. “Any excess you might have had is gone.”

Boggiatto’s romaine was going into processor packs rather than 24-count cartons, as trimmed heads were too small for the cartons.

Beside the fungus, January freezes took a toll. A freeze hit Yuma on the New Year’s holiday weekend, followed by another Jan. 21-22, Barrientos said.

“Just when we thought we were getting out of this frost period and the epidermal peeling that comes with that, we get hit with another 2 to 3 days of cold temperatures which will only prolong it,” Barrientos said.

The desert region experiences intermittent cold spells about once in every three to five winters, he said.

Weather outside growing regions also had some effect on the market.

“The weather back East has kept people from going out, but as much as demand is down, supply is down even further,” said Boggiatto, whose production total is about 10% to 15% below normal.

UPDATED: Lettuce prices soar as fungus spreads

Courtesy Coastline Produce

An iceberg lettuce head in Yuma, Ariz., shows fungus damage in this January photo.