(March 27) An 87% plunge in acreage and cooler weather have contributed to one of the fastest Kern County lettuce crop harvests.

This year’s crop is expected to be completed two to three weeks ahead of normal on acreage that has tumbled to less than 500 compared to the county’s 3,900 acre 1990s average.

“There’s just no supplies at all to be in,” said David Ollivier, owner of Western Veg-Produce Inc., Bakersfield, Calif.., who doesn’t have any lettuce this year.

“This wasn’t the right year to be out of the deal,” he said. Prices will definitely be a mess, until mid-April, he predicted in mid-March.

Head lettuce prices have skyrocketed from 12-15 cents to $1-1.35 a pound. Bin lettuce that only a month ago would have sold for 8 or 9 cents a pound now sells for more than 75 cents a pound.

“Our carton customers are buying very little each day just to get by due to the high prices,” said Danny Andrews, sales manager for Robert S. Andrews, Bakersfield.

Shippers say they don’t think the county has more than 400 lettuce acres.

“The whole valley has less acreage than what one grower used to have,” said Doug Kophamer, partner with Kophamer Farms Inc., Bakersfield.

The high lettuce prices have accelerated lettuce production, which started March 15, about two weeks earlier than normal for the county’s usual late March to mid- to late April deal.

Lettuce being harvested was mature, but Kophamer said grower-shippers could have waited another five days before harvesting when they could have harvested 53-pound per box lettuce compared to the 48-49 pounds per box they reaped.

Shippers say the harder-to-market speculative or noncontracted lettuce acreage fell considerably this year.

“The processors who haven’t been able to secure product under normal contract relationships have had to go to outside the market and bid for it,” said Don Andrews, partner with Sam Andrews’ Sons, Bakersfield. “That’s been a big factor that’s been driving up the f.o.b. price.”

If the cooler-than-normal climate continues, shippers say the strong market likely will continue through mid-April. The industry has focused more on Yuma, Imperial Valley and the coastal growing regions, shippers say.