Vegetables put crunch on wallets Calif. flooding adds pressure on supply, prices


In the Giant store at York Road Plaza near Towson Wednesday night, the clues of a disaster 3,000 miles away were faintly visible. The tip-off was the tips: the yellowish ends of the broccoli.

The flooding in California over the past week will mean short supplies and higher prices in Maryland, retailers and suppliers say, but only for a few kinds of produce. The impact will be concentrated on a few commodities, such as broccoli, lettuce, asparagus and cauliflower, that are hard to get from anywhere but Central California at this time of year.

"By the end of this week, we probably won't have any [broccoli] in our stores," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for the Landover supermarket chain, which controls a quarter of the grocery market in Baltimore and about half in metropolitan Washington. "There just isn't any place else to get it."

Food brokers at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup say they are already seeing big price increases for some vegetables from California.

"Yesterday I heard $15 to $17" for a crate of 14 heads of broccoli that sold for $6 to $8 two weeks ago, Jim Fava, executive vice president of the G. Fava Fruit Co. in Jessup, said Wednesday. "Today I'm hearing $18 to $20."

Justin Vitrano, whose family runs the Tony Vitrano Co. at Jessup, said that "a lot of items have gone up slightly. Some items have gone up a lot."

But even as California officials estimate $363 million in crop damage, almost 2 percent of the state's reported $20 billion annual agricultural output, industry insiders in Arizona and California say that the effects of the flood on consumer grocery prices may be limited -- and that much of the impact that does occur may reflect more hype than reality.

"There may be some small increase in prices, but I don't see really big increases right now," said Ed Angstadt, president of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Central California in Salinas, Calif. "This is normally our season to plant and get ready for the summer."

Indeed, at the Towson Giant, broccoli was on special for 69 cents a pound; lettuce was $1.19 cents a pound for iceberg and $1.99 for romaine, and cauliflower was $1.99 a head. The prices were about the same as a week ago, a store produce manager said, except the lettuce has risen by about 20 cents and the broccoli was more expensive before the sale.

The flood has led California Gov. Pete Wilson to ask President Clinton to declare 39 of California's 58 counties disaster areas. Seven days of storms dropped up to 10 1/2 inches of rain in some areas and killed at least 15 people.

There are two reasons why the impact of the flood in the East should be limited. First, groceries from Central California are only a small part of most people's shopping lists -- the area, sometimes called the nation's Salad Bowl, is mostly devoted to vegetable farming. California fruit is mostly grown either farther south or farther inland than the worst-flooded areas.

And for many vegetables other than lettuce and broccoli, Eastern wholesalers and retailers rely on central California more heavily later in the year than in mid-March. Arizona and Southern California growers are prime sources of many vegetables in the winter before farmers there shift to fruit during the hotter summer months, said Ron Vogt, a salesman for Martori Bros., a major grower in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Mr. Vogt says short-term shortages this week won't reflect crop losses in Central California. Instead, he and others say higher prices now reflect two things: the short-term impossibility of getting equipment and workers out into the field in last week's pouring rain, and the fact that mild weather accelerated some harvests farther south, meaning that product moved through the wholesale markets earlier than usual.

"What is hard for people to understand is that prices were going to go up anyway," said Mr. Vitrano, at the Jessup market. "Right now the effect is minimal. Most stuff that is here was harvested before the floods."

Mr. Vogt said the immediate impact of the rain could fall off within a week. He said the longer-term effects of the flood would not be felt until later in the spring, when more central California crops would have come to market if the flood hadn't happened.

"Predictions that prices will skyrocket are very premature," Mr. Vogt said. "They [retailers] will be able to get [produce], but it will be of only fair quality."

Experts also stressed that it won't be clear how many crops are damaged until the water recedes. Some crops planted on higher ground, such as strawberries, should do well.

"I really don't have any numbers," said Mr. Angstadt, whose association represents about 75 of the largest growers in Salinas, Monterey and San Benito counties. After the floods, farmers will also have to figure out how much of their land is damaged badly enough to require retilling and how much can be rushed back into production more quickly.

Broccoli and cauliflower take about four to five months to grow back after replanting, said Kirby Kelly, a produce broker in Salinas. Lettuce takes 85 to 90 days. Mr. Angstadt said new strawberries would take six to eight weeks to grow.

Retailers like Jack Murphy, chief operating officer of Rockville-based Fresh Fields Markets Inc., said they are preparing for spot shortages of vegetables such as artichokes and broccoli in the spring, before it is warm enough in the East for local crops to help fill the gaps.

"One thing people might want to do is try some vegetables they're not as used to; there's a lot of great kinds of produce out there," Mr. Murphy said. Of course, he conceded, "there's not a direct substitute for any of these items. If you want Caesar salad, you have to have romaine lettuce."

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