Last year’s winter deal saw record lows for greenhouse vegetable prices, while this year has seen records highs thus far as a result of supply shortages.

Growers say high pricing may remain if they can continue to offer added value to a loyal subset of shoppers.

Bryant Ambelang, vice president of sales and marketing for Desert Glory Ltd., San Antonio, said greenhouse vegetables are known for higher quality, better taste and longer shelf-life.

Tim Cunniff, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Backyard Farms LLC, Madison, Maine, said shortages from Florida and a temporary block of Dutch imports has led to higher pricing at the retail level.

Nonetheless, he said loyal consumers see the value in paying more for greenhouse vegetables.

“We are seeing the consumers are pretty loyal to the product,” he said. “They see the value of the freshness of our living lettuce, the cleanliness, and it’s a value — they know week after week what they are going to get.”

Cunniff said retail prices may be higher, but retailer and grower costs have also risen.

“We have to be creative, and we have to find ways to do more with less,” he said. “We have to be very conscious that the consumers are more price-conscious in an economy like this so we have to make sure that our products are interesting.”

One way Backyard Farms has saved is by selling to a close marketplace, which offers the double benefit of providing a buy-local product.

“We are very close to our markets, which makes us efficient and environmentally friendly. We are basically considered local growers,” Cunniff said.

Cunniff said despite the tightness of consumer dollars in a down economy, there is still opportunity for growth and new consumers continue to try Backyard Farms greenhouse products.

Chris Ciruli, partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC, Nogales, Ariz., said major chains are helping to move greenhouse products with advertisements even with high retail prices.

Scary territory

Gregg Biada, vice president of Global Fresh Import & Export, Springfield, Ill. is also shocked that volumes have moved so well with record high prices.

“This year the consumers are still buying, still supporting it. That is amazing ([that product)is still passing through the system,” Biada said. “Retails are a lot higher this year than they were last year … This time last year it would have maybe stopped the product from selling, period.”

Biada wondered if the market was about to reach a breaking point at $3-4 per pound retail prices for tomatoes on the vine.

“We are up in pretty scary territory right now,” he said. “We probably have a good four or five weeks of solid pricing before the Canadian season kicks in.”

Even with high retail prices, Biada said consumers are still buying, but in smaller quantities.

A big question mark

Greg Cardamone, general manager for vegetables at L&M Co., Raleigh, N.C., agreed pricing for items affected by the Florida freeze have leveled off and demand has not dropped.

“March is the big question mark always,” said Glen Bezanson, sales manager for the Western U.S. in the Upland, Calif. office of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC.

With the arrival of Canadian greenhouse tomatoes in mid-March, Bezanson said high pricing will begin to settle down.