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NEWS : Rain Falls, Prices Rise

March 16, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

The beginning of the spring harvest up and down the Central Coast normally brings lower produce prices. Then came last weekend's storms--maybe the worst of an already bad winter.

By most accounts, it will be at least two weeks before the full extent of the damage is figured out. In many cases it will be that long before farmers can even begin to get into the fields to find out.

But with an estimated 10,000 acres of farmland flooded, expect to see already high prices continue and even increase for artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, leaf and head lettuces, celery and strawberries. That's the short term. Depending on what farmers find in the fields--and when they can get there--expect those prices to continue for at least a couple of weeks and possibly into next month.

In essence, the ultimate effect of what may have been the last major storm of the winter will be to stretch that season's prices well into spring--and in some cases, even beyond.

* Almonds--More than 10,000 acres of almond trees--roughly 2.5% of the state's total--were uprooted. Almonds are top-heavy trees with shallow root systems and with the combination of high winds and wet soil, whole orchards were toppled. Beyond that, earlier wet, cold weather had inhibited pollination, meaning the crop was going to come up short anyway. Estimates are that as much as 30% of the crop may be lost.

* Artichokes--While the entire Salinas Valley was hard-hit by this latest storm, the area around Castroville was especially bad. With many fields underwater, the concern right now is not salvaging the current crop so much as it is saving plants for later harvests. Mary Comfort of the California Artichoke Advisory Board says many farmers are going through the fields they could get into and "stumping" the plants--cutting them off just above ground level, hoping to spur an April-May crop. Even if that works, at the very least, 30% of the year's harvest is probably lost.

* Asparagus--Though this crop is a bit less sensitive to water than many others, don't expect the usual spring dip in prices. And keep an eye out for spears that have slimy tips--the spot most likely to be affected by excess moisture.

* Cherries--"Things couldn't be much worse," says Jim Culbertson, of the Cherry Advisory Board. In the middle of bloom, cherry growers are seeing cold, wet weather that keeps the flowers from pollinating. And with more sporadic rain on the way, things show no sign of improving any time soon. "We had a record-setting crop last year and we may get half that this year," says Culbertson. "It's just too early to tell."

* Lettuces--"The World's Salad Bowl is pretty damp," said one Monterey County agricultural official. Indeed, though the lettuce harvest in the Watsonville area wasn't supposed to get under way until mid-April, it may be almost that long before farmers can get into some fields to begin repairing the damage. And in Fresno County, it's estimated that of 8,800 acres of iceberg lettuce that should begin being picked next week, 6,500 are under standing water. One grower estimates as much as half the lettuce crop has been destroyed. In addition to poor quality and reduced harvests in the immediate future, look for reduced supplies in mid-May and even later as fields that should be planted now are going unworked.

* Pears--Three of the four main pear-producing areas in the state were caught in mid-bloom by the storm. While the trees weathered the wind and rain fairly well, the pear crop will almost certainly be reduced because the wet, cold, windy weather hindered the pollination that leads to fruit.

* Strawberries--How bad has this year been for strawberry farmers? With a steady stream of storms, last week they'd harvested only 1.8 million cases as compared to last year's 3.2 million. And just when things were supposed to be getting back to normal, along comes this latest storm, which floods not only the Oxnard area (which should have been finally swinging into full gear about now) but also the Santa Maria and Salinas valleys (where the season is just beginning).

* Winter Vegetables--It's been a tough winter for buyers of broccoli, celery and cauliflower, but it's only going to get worse. "We expect all products to go higher," says Jeff Foster, a salesman for Oxnard-based Boskovich Farms. What's more, he says this storm will affect prices through May and into the beginning of June.

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