INCLEMENT WEATHER HURTS PRODUCE

NEW YORK -- Heavy rains in California and hailstorms in Arizona have given produce buyers a fresh round of headaches. The bad weather has devastated strawberry crops, and reduced the quality and supply of other crops as well."We've had to put up with problems with iceberg lettuce. The quality of a lot of leafy items, particularly those from California, hasn't been as good," said Jose Manzano, produce

NEW YORK -- Heavy rains in California and hailstorms in Arizona have given produce buyers a fresh round of headaches. The bad weather has devastated strawberry crops, and reduced the quality and supply of other crops as well.

"We've had to put up with problems with iceberg lettuce. The quality of a lot of leafy items, particularly those from California, hasn't been as good," said Jose Manzano, produce director for Dorothy Lane Markets, a three-store independent in Dayton, Ohio. "We've just had to watch our inventory. Overall, though, we really haven't had a very serious problem, other than adjusting for some higher prices."

The wet weather has complicated harvesting, led to planting gaps, and caused mold and mildew to spread more quickly on fruits and vegetables from the region. These include celery, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, grapes and strawberries.

Yet unlike the recent tomato price spikes caused by Florida's brutal 2004 hurricane season, the agricultural impact of California's heavy rains hasn't garnered much mainstream media attention. As a result, Manzano said Dorothy Lane's produce departments have been dealing with customer questions and comments on an individual basis, rather than highlighting the issue with point-of-sale materials.

"It seems like it's not going to get any better until probably May, so we're still going to have to put up with this for another few weeks," he said.

In a recent online column, Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president of consumer affairs for Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, informed customers that bad weather in California was "causing lingering quality and supply problems with lettuce, leafy greens, salad blends and celery." She noted that the company's private-label bagged salad supplier had been told to reduce its 'best if used by' dates by two days to ensure freshness.

"Shorter supply, quality issues and rising prices are things we'd like to completely isolate our customers from ... but sometimes it's just not possible," she added.

"We continue to monitor quality very carefully and seek out the best available to meet your needs."

Many organic produce retailers have been particularly hard hit by the weather.

"These rains have devastated us," said Joe Hardiman, produce merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets, Seattle. "We sell exclusively organic. Unlike a conventional store, where they can substitute another item, we're forced to go out of sale. We're hurt like everyone else is, but because we're dealing with a very limited supply line, we're having a lot more trouble."

For example, Hardiman said PCC typically has a large sale on organic strawberries in March, but this year, there was simply no harvest. The chain of seven co-ops has placed point-of-sale signs in their produce departments, reminding their members of the rains in Southern California and asking for their patience.

"When it rains and rains like this, there's just really not a whole lot you can do," said Mark Lipson, an organic farmer in California who is the policy and program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Santa Cruz, Calif.

"March was a very scarce month for fresh produce. It's starting to turn around now, but everything on the south coast of California has been very heavily impacted, all the way from Salinas to San Diego," he added. "Everything is a few weeks behind."

Weather issues haven't been isolated to California. Chiquita recently reported that average banana prices in North America had risen 6% due to flooding in Costa Rica and Panama. Alarm is also growing over Varroa mites, a pesticide-resistant parasite that this year has already killed 50% of the honeybees in California. The state's almond growers are expressing concern over what may have been under-pollination of this year's crop. If a solution is not found soon, the mites could create future hardships for other fruit and nut growers in the state as well.

"Weather is something that can certainly wreak havoc with even the best produce plans," said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general manager of perishable food for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. "I would not characterize the situation as being any better or worse than other years, just different. The industry has had to deal with freezes, droughts, hurricanes and hailstorms over the years, and each presents its own issues. We just have to find ways to offset the impact as best we can."

Hardiman agreed. "We lost a lot of sales, but it's improving. It looks like the worst is over," he said.