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IN SEASON

Tomatoes Are Up, Lettuce Is Down

June 03, 1993|RUSS PARSONS

All through this damp, chilly winter, tomatoes were cheap and lettuce was expensive. Now comes mid-spring and, despite warm sunny weather, the situation is reversed. What's going on here?

Tomatoes were cheap this winter because of a plentiful harvest in central Mexico. Now they're expensive--more than $1 a pound wholesale--because late-winter rains have delayed the Baja harvest. This time of year, more than half of the nation's vine-ripe tomato supply comes from Mexico and one shipper estimates that the Baja crop is only a quarter the size of last year's. Florida's crop is also smaller this year, and California has yet to start harvesting tomatoes. As a result, retail tomato prices are three or four times higher than normal for this time of year. And, incidentally, two to three times as high as they were in the dead of winter.

Meanwhile, the Salinas-Watsonville area--dubbed the "Salad Bowl of the Nation"--is back on full production. Lettuce, which was expensive because winter rains interrupted planting in California and produced flooding in Arizona, is back to normal--between 20 cents and 25 cents a head wholesale. That's roughly a quarter to a fifth the price it was during the winter and about a third the price of just a month ago.

Though bell pepper prices are moderate now, some insiders are betting on a price rise within the next couple of weeks. That's when the bulk of the California harvest will move from the Imperial and Coachella valleys to its summertime home around Bakersfield. Frequently, there is a week or two between the harvests, but that does not normally have much of a price impact because eastern peppers come into the market at the same time. This year, however, the whopper storm that hit the southeast in mid-March reduced the harvest in Florida, southern Georgia and North Carolina by as much as 20%.

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