Written by Hazel Appaqaq / Produce Buyer
A topic of discussion from the local producers meeting in November was about updating the local price list. Big picture, the local food market is far from tapped out, with conspicuous volumes still trucking in through Discovery, our regular produce distributor. As a result, a surprising number of seasonally available items sit at a relatively arbitrary, unchanging price, simply because hardly anyone goes to the trouble of growing them, and would then bother selling a sparse few to us. Therefore, things like local broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers, and garlic remain on the high end, with no foreseeable change on the horizon.
The sad situation reflects the national ratio of food production versus consumption, which currently rests at 80% importation of fresh fruit and vegetables. But the reason for the price fluctuations of non-local produce are much more diverse and far-reaching. You’ve probably heard about the unseasonable weather in the states and Mexico this winter. An example which affected our food listings was, beginning in November and dragging into March, the inland desert and coastal regions of California experienced one of the worst winter growing conditions in recent memory. Discovery’s market reporter was like a broken record as, week after week, their major vegetable producers contended with unprecedented low temperatures, destructive frosts, snows in areas where it never had before, and prohibitive rains. To summarize her tidings, the unusually wet, frigid conditions kept farmers from getting into their fields to do prep work, transplanting and harvesting, and also wreaked havoc with crop quality and shippable amounts.
The cold spell which descended upon the desert was remarkable both in duration (approximately 13 weeks of below-normal lows) and intensity, landing California and several other states among record cold rankings by the NOAA. A drop in air temperature this severe and this extended causes soil temperatures to chill, and microbial activity to diminish (a critical food source for plants), which in turn translates to a slowing of growth in crops across the board. Winter plantings of the whole gamut of field crops also suffered cold and frost damage, like this field of green onions in Holtville, in early January.
In most cases, growers had to cull away the wreckage, either scrapping the damaged product or shipping instead to processing outfits, and wait for the plantings to regrow.
Sometimes this was successful… other times the same plantings were simply devastated again.
The anomalous cold seeped well into Northern Mexico, where one of Discovery’s key growers, Ecocampos, had to walk away from an entire succession of decimated red and black kale. Along the Mexican coast from Hermosillo to Culiacan, growth was stunted in crops ranging from cherry tomatoes and zucchini, to shadehouse operations of vine tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. This next one really put the losses into perspective for me. Below is a shot of a 20 hectare avocado orchard in Jalisco, completely frozen after the first hard frost in 80 years. Imagine the level of tension and hand-wringing throughout the industry!
Next, here is a frosted celery field in Yuma, AZ, arguably the crop that was hit the hardest by the erratic weather. Due in part to its long growth period, and the normal transplanting schedules being impeded, celery pricing is not expected to recover until June.
Meanwhile on the coast, the excessive rains chimed in by causing flooding in fields and collapsing harvest windows, since a heavy soaking shortens vegetables’ shelf life and hence transportation range.
Also compounding these challenges were the difficulties involved in retaining field labourers during unworkable stretches, an aggressive aphid infestation for some extra-lucky growers, and the Romaine health warning in December which is still effecting demand in the states.
Long story short, the season’s yields were peppered with low availability and plain and simple shorts, meaning for us – higher prices. To digress, you could say that food pricing on any scale boils down to supply and demand: growers have consumption patterns mapped out, and tweak their crop successions to focus output at the peaks and ease off with the troughs. And this is exactly what US farmers did last year, in response to an overproduction of lettuce creating a buyers market. Many of them chose to reduce this years production to match the perceived optimum amounts, and two of Discovery’s major producers opted out of the lettuce business altogether. But what this past winter has brutally demonstrated is that a) the game of forecasting those seasonal norms is based on a familiar, predictable climate, and b) we are presently seeing more and more divergences from any previous concept of “normal.”
“Normally,” it only takes small weather fluctuations to provoke a significant effect on the availability and pricing of our distantly acquired foods. All the more reason then, to not leave the food business to the farmers anymore, but to make ourselves into the new sources of nourishment and earth-based knowledge. The global food system is as mind-boggling of a creature to fathom as it ever was, now only increasingly so in the context of climate change.