Shoppers forced to give up more green for produce

January 25, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

"Sticker shock" is a term usually reserved for large purchases such as cars and televisions, but grocery shoppers may have gotten some shocks recently from the prices on fruits and vegetables.

Cucumbers that cost a dollar each, lettuce at nearly $2 a head and radishes at a dollar or more a 6-ounce package are the result of bad weather late last year in Florida and heavy rains the past week or so in California.

However, people in the grocery and produce industries say only few items were seriously affected by the storms, and consumers can expect prices that are already moderating to continue to fall.

The tiny radish, inundated in Florida fields by Tropical Storm Gordon last November, seems to have taken the biggest bad-weather hit.

"For a week or so we were almost completely out of radishes," said George Minarik, produce buyer for Super Fresh. The low supply sent prices skyward, from 60 cents to 70 cents a 6-ounce package to $1.19 and higher. "The situation has eased some, it appears supplies are getting better," he said.

Oranges, avocados, strawberries, lettuce and celery are other crops heavily affected by rain and flooding in the West.

"It hasn't destroyed the oranges," said Norman Vitrano, of Tony Vitrano Co., a wholesaler at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup, "but they couldn't get into the groves to pick the oranges."

Tony Vitrano, Mr. Vitrano's nephew, said the problem with lettuce actually dates back before the recent rains, when other weather problems delayed putting in new crops.

But Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association in Alexandria, Va., said things could have been worse.

"It's actually not as significant an impact as we first thought," he said. "The flood damage [in California] has been temporary, resulting mostly in delays in planting."

One reason the impact has not been worse is that the central coastal areas of California, where most of the rain fell, is not a big supplier of produce at this time of year. "Most of the vegetables this time of year come from the desert areas," from Arizona and extreme southeastern California, said Scott Miller, assistant branch chief at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Fruit and Vegetable Marketing News.

"The two crops most affected in the medium term would be celery, which comes from the Oxnard area, where they got a lot of rain, and strawberries, which were heavily rained on," Mr. Miller said.

Strawberry prices were just beginning to come down before the rains hit, said Michael Marks, sales manager for Sacramento Pre-Pak, Sacramento, Calif., which supplies wholesale produce. "Rain causes strawberries to melt, just like the wicked witch in the 'Wizard of Oz,' " he said.

The problem with avocados, Mr. Marks said, is that rain and wind meant current crops couldn't be harvested. "They use 3-legged ladders 20 feet tall," he said, "and they don't want to set them up in the wind. And they definitely don't put them up in soggy soil."

That translates into a short supply at a time when demand is at its peak, he said. "You have very heavy demand because of the Super Bowl," he said. "That is guacamole Sunday. More avocados are eaten during Super Bowl than at any other time except Cinco de Mayo."

Locally, grocery stores are trying to keep popular produce items in stock and hold the line somewhat on prices.

"Basically, you've probably seen the high on most things, except for navel oranges," said Mr. Minarik of Super Fresh.

Mark Roeder, a spokesman for Giant, said that while the company had seen some "sporadic shortages" they are doing what they can to keep oranges and lettuces in stock.

At Safeway, supplies have not been a problem, but prices have been higher, according to John Deckard, public relations manager. However, he said, "given another week or so, Florida will be in full swing again," he said, and prices should be coming down.

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