INDUSTRY IS UNCERTAIN IF EL NINO WILL CLOUD PRODUCE PRICES

The worst El Nino in 150 years is slapping U.S. growing areas with unwelcome weather conditions, but there is so far little consensus among industry sources about how seriously U.S. crops or retail produce prices will be affected.Reports to date are that the crop damage has not been serious. Harvesting and planting of tomato and citrus crops have been slowed in Florida. Strawberry prices are high

The worst El Nino in 150 years is slapping U.S. growing areas with unwelcome weather conditions, but there is so far little consensus among industry sources about how seriously U.S. crops or retail produce prices will be affected.

Reports to date are that the crop damage has not been serious. Harvesting and planting of tomato and citrus crops have been slowed in Florida. Strawberry prices are high and lettuce planting is being stalled in the West. But then, El Nino is not finished.

Meanwhile, retail prices in some markets are reported to be inching up for certain items, such as head lettuce, romaine lettuce, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, strawberries and some varieties of tomatoes.

One retail group, the Indiana Grocery and Convenience Store Association, Indianapolis, reported that "increased prices are already happening at the retail level and although erratic, consumers, will continue to see prices rise in the coming weeks."

In a statement, the association said supplies are expected to continue to dwindle, raising the likelihood of further retail price increases.

Other industry sources also said continued supply shortfalls are a likely scenario.

"There's a good chance crops will be affected," said Kathy Means, vice president of the 2,500-member Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. "Some Florida and California growers can't get into their fields to harvest some crops."

California growers say a little dry weather will go a long way. In the Salinas Valley, lettuce growers have been forced to hold off planting the crop that should be harvested in April. "Lettuce was tight before this," said Means. "They can't get into the fields to plant, and they won't harvest in April if they don't plant. There's not a lot that can be done for acres of row crops. They're subject to weather no matter what." Extreme weather conditions affect crops in three ways, Means explained: "Crops ready to be harvested can't be, because farmers can't get in the fields. Crops growing now are hurt by the excess water, and growers can't plant the new crops."

Sara DeLea, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association in Washington, said the trade group is monitoring the situation through 1,500 produce brokers, shippers, distributors and processors who are in constant contact with the growers.

"Right now, it looks like there may be a few gaps, but not much more than usual in the nature of the fresh commodity markets," said DeLea. "The growers say whenever there's a break, they get out there, so things look like they are going to be fine."

"Salinas Valley growers are getting ready, planting seedlings in greenhouses so they won't be hurt," added DeLea. "It won't be as bad as the flood at the height of the lettuce-growing season in 1995."

"We have been able to get some stuff in the ground and harvest some. Every day they're out there checking the product," said Ed Angstadt, spokesperson for the 50-member Grower Shipper Vegetable Association in Salinas, Calif.

Angstadt admitted that even with accurate weather forecasts "there's only so much we can do" to save crops during floods, but he added, "We're not looking at shortages now." The dark side could be a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service, which said the abnormal weather patterns of this record-shattering, ocean-warming El Nino are likely to continue through late spring and into summer. The NWS also predicted another round of wet weather soon for California.

Growers say they're optimistic. However, if the rain keeps up, others say the picture will not be rosy. "Artichokes will definitely be affected, because they don't like water," said Tom O'Grady, produce broker and partner in the Johnny O'Grady Co., Salinas, Calif. "We won't be seeing the spring glut of artichokes and prices will be high." O'Grady said that in 1995, prices on some lettuces rose to as high as $50 a box, when normal spring prices hover between $4 and $8 a box.

"If the rain doesn't let up, we'll probably see more prices fluctuate between $20 or $30 a box for the head and romaine lettuces," said O'Grady. "But if the rain lets up, it won't be too bad."