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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Lettuce explain why you're paying a dollar more for leafy greens

The price of leafy greens and other produce from California is soaring, all the way in Florida.

Lettuce explain.

In a classic example of feast or famine, after a decadelong drought, California farmers have had to cope with unusually high snow melt this spring along with heavy rains that have adversely affected the planting, growth and harvesting of crops including leafy greens, cauliflower, celery and others.

As a result, bay area restaurateurs are having a hard time getting their hands on lettuce. And you may be paying up to $1 more at grocery stores.

This is always a tricky part of the year, in between harvests from different regions, but experts say this may be the worst crop disruption in a decade.

The winter growing season in Southern California and Arizona ended early because of warmer-than-usual weather, and then coastal growing regions of California experienced heavy rains that affected planting. The result is shortfalls for a number crops and prices that reflect that scarcity.

Although Florida is an important agricultural state, with 87 farms producing lettuce on 9,823 acres according to the USDA's most recent census of agriculture, it's a drop in the national bucket. The state produced less than 3 percent of the nation's iceberg from January to April last year, and less than 1 percent of the nation's romaine in that time. For these, California is king.

The upshot: Expect higher prices and even empty shelves in some cases. The Publix on Third Street S in St. Petersburg is selling three-packs of conventional romaine for $3.99, organic for $4.99, each about a dollar more than a month ago. Locale Market in St. Petersburg is not selling romaine at all, although it continues to offer it on the salad bar and upstairs in a salad at FarmTable Kitchen.

Trader Joe's in Tampa is charging $2.49 for a package of three conventional heads of romaine from California and $2.99 for organic, although a spokesperson said they don't change their prices on these items when wholesale prices fluctuate.

Beyond retail, restaurateurs are feeling the pinch.

Gino Tiozzo, general manager at the Donatello in Tampa, which prepares nearly 400 tableside Caesar salads each week, has seen skyrocketing prices. Romaine, he says, is usually in the mid $20s for a case, but now he's paying more than $60.

"This time of year generally is an issue with lettuce; it's in between crops. But since the end of March, romaine has been two and a half times the average price," he said.

And what he is getting, Tiozzo said, is no great shakes.

"In the produce world, when the prices are the highest, the quality is the lowest. When it's peak growth season, it's cheap and it's beautiful."

With a Caesar salad that costs $12.95 already, Tiozzo's hands are tied.

"We can't pass that cost on to customers. We muscle through it and lose our margin for a month or so."

Todd Hall, a well-known Boston chef who opens Suegra Tequila Cantina in Oldsmar soon, says that there is always a gap of a couple of weeks between Arizona and California harvests, but that this year it's expected to last two months, until around Mother's Day.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better. The big problem is the growers don't have it to give to the distributors, and the big distributors don't have it to give to the restaurants."

Hall says wholesalers are receiving only half or less of orders on romaine and iceberg, and local distributors have taken romaine off the market so they can supply key clients. Much of the nation's romaine production is controlled by Dole, Taylor Farms and Tanimura & Antle, he says, but the culprit in this particular shortage is likely global warming. For Hall, who is stocking his restaurant for the first time, there's no Plan B.

"There's no substitute for romaine."

For some, this shortfall represents an opportunity.

Shannon O'Malley of Brick Street Farms, an indoor commercial hydroponic farm in St. Petersburg, is benefiting from the national lettuce shortage (as well as from recent bad press about bagged lettuces when someone found a dead bat). Recently it has had an increased number of queries from consumers and restaurants.

"Over the past year, our prices were slightly above the national average for conventional lettuce items like romaine, spinach and butterhead," she says, explaining that the cost reflects a cleaner, higher-quality product. "Our prices have remained consistent while the national average has skyrocketed. As a result, we are nearly half the cost of wholesale prices for restaurants."

Yes, you can find alternative and even local sources for products, says Chris Fernandez, executive chef for the Red Mesa group in St. Petersburg, but for many items you're going to pay more.

"I wish we could harvest more produce in Florida, but it's hard. So 80 percent of our produce comes from California and the prices are ridiculous right now. With some items, I have to say I don't have it. It's 86ed."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

Crops affected

• Romaine

• Iceberg

• Celery

• Spinach

• Broccoli

• Cauliflower

• Kale

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