RAINS MAY HIKE PRICES OF CALIFORNIA PRODUCE

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The soaking rain and flooding throughout California earlier this month could result in higher retail prices for strawberries, oranges, celery, spinach, broccoli and other produce, according to the California Farm Bureau here."Wet weather has delayed the planting of vegetable crops that would be harvested this spring and early summer," the bureau reported. "Gaps in production

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The soaking rain and flooding throughout California earlier this month could result in higher retail prices for strawberries, oranges, celery, spinach, broccoli and other produce, according to the California Farm Bureau here.

"Wet weather has delayed the planting of vegetable crops that would be harvested this spring and early summer," the bureau reported. "Gaps in production may result, and consumers could face higher retail prices at that time."

In the short term, growers have been unable to harvest crops because of the rain and wet fields, said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the farm bureau. He said growers could also face long-term damage from standing water in fields, which causes root rot.

Leafy vegetables other than iceberg lettuce are facing severe damage, he said. He added that a great deal of iceberg is grown in the Yuma, Ariz., area, which has so far been spared the rains. Celery prices are already inching upward, he said.

David Cook, a grower at Deardorff-Jackson, based in Oxnard, said he has had trouble harvesting his celery and mixed lettuce. "I'm having accessibility problems," he said. "We'll get it out eventually, but it may be too late for some of the celery."

Julie Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., said some shipments of produce were delayed due to poor road conditions.

Several produce industry representatives said long-term damage may not be that serious. Avocado losses were far less than early reports indicated, according to Tom Bellamore, vice president

of the California Avocado Commission, based in Santa Ana.

"We fared quite well, considering," Bellamore said Jan. 12. "Not a lot of fruit dropped."

He said bad weather had delayed harvesting, and that may cause a 10% to 20% shortage in the short term. He said avocado levels should return to normal as soon as the rains end.

Teresa Thorne, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, said it was "way too early" to tell if the rains would hurt early strawberries.

Thorne said some fields were under water, and there was fear of possible root damage. Since the California strawberry season had just gotten under way when the rains started, many growers wouldn't begin harvesting for weeks or months yet, she said. Marilyn Watkins, director of communications and publicity for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, said the state's crop of peaches, plums and nectarines was not affected by the floods. "Those fruits are all in their dormant stage now," she said.