MARKET REPORT – DEC. 22ND, 2017
Hoping you have an enjoyable holiday season!
First of all, best of the season to all of you hard-working people in the produce world – hopefully you can walk away from the stress now. Did I order enough broccoli? Will we run out of Brussels sprouts? What will I do with those 2 cases of cranberries I didn’t need, or the extra Poultry Spice clams? Well, it’s pretty well too late now for many of you, so just let it go if you can. (We’ve let go of the fact that we a few dozen extra packs of poultry blend ourselves.)
Cold weather is not a factor in the produce world at this time, and nothing on the horizon. Here at home, very strong arctic outflows are keeping temperatures on the Coast below freezing and the rest of W. Canada will be in the deep freeze. If you want to avoid the cold, go North, where warm ocean air is being pulled all the way to the North Pole, where it will be warmer than virtually all of W. Canada for the next few days.
In our fast-paced world it’s nice to know that traditions hold for major holidays, and menus have literally stayed the same for generations, despite so many other changes in our daily lives. For farmers, nailing start dates and transplants back in the summer can make a huge difference to sales over the next week, especially for those ubiquitous vegetables that are deeply etched into our Holiday dinners – you know the ones, celery of course, and sprouts and yams.
Do you know how hard it is to grow Brussels sprouts? Here on the coast, seeds have to germinate before the May long weekend, and be transplanted right after Equinox. Any earlier and they will bolt (go to seed prematurely.)They are very slow-growing and sprout development comes from at times stressing the plants so they get shocked into production mode. The older leaves have to get hand-removed from the bottom foot of the plant to bring more light and ventilation to the lower stalk. The plant really wants to produce, in essence, a small cabbage on the top, and no sprouts, so to prevent that, the top of the stalk has to be knocked off. Then you watch and wait as tiny sprouts forming above each leaf node start to grow. You watch the weather and keep your fingers crossed that you will get uniform good-sized sprouts, which is a balancing act to have enough warmth to grow the sprouts, enough water to keep the plants healthy, but also hope for cold nights which are crucial to production.
As a grower, you know you are going to miss the Canadian Thanksgiving window– there’s no way for them to be ready in time. You are really aiming for the Christmas-time markets. But you could also be harvesting when it’s close to freezing, and there is no faster way to freeze your hands than knocking sprouts off in the snow. November is the usual harvest month for sprouts that have sized up, and although not common knowledge, there is a huge amount of Brussels sprouts grown in the Fraser Valley, primarily in the eastern and colder section between Abbotsford and Chilliwack. But few organic. They are harvested early, simply because weather can be too tricky in December. (Last year there was snow on the ground pretty well permanently from Dec 4th into March.) It is also very, very hard to find labourers willing to work at those cold temperatures, and most migrant farm workers have left in November.
So here’s the deal – how do growers get sprouts to last for weeks and weeks before they are really needed? Packed like broccoli, completely entombed in ice, and stored below freezing, they stay fairly fresh for long enough to have them to market in mid-December. Unfortunately, as you know, cabbage’s sour, and Brussels sprouts, being related, also tend to get a bit bitter and the smell gets ‘noisier’ if they are in fact harvested 6 weeks before sale. Which is why many people don’t like them and most kids won’t eat them. So if you’re ever wondering why these aren’t the cheapest vegetable around, it’s because they require care and attention for 6 months, far more field work than other brassicas, and complicated cold-weather harvesting and storage. And all this effort to maintain a tradition, putting them on the table, on most tables for hundreds of millions of people.
And then there’s Ralph’s in Mount Vernon, Washington, a little warmer, and a crew who work year-round. Ray and Tim, the growers, are one of the biggest leek producers during the winter months in the U.S., and with a crew in place, Brussels sprouts was a logical crop, and their sprouts are harvested and shipped fresh to us.
As for the rest of the produce world, here’s a fast update.
Apple prices continue to depress with air storage fruit galore before any CA rooms are cracked. And as mentioned a few weeks ago, with high volumes in Washington, don’t expect any major price hikes until well into the spring. Avocado market is very stable, with thousands of acres of expanding orchards in Mexico keeping up with the ever-increasing market across the Global North. Estimates are that 1400 acres of avocado groves have been burned out in the Ventura fire, but that will not produce any impact on pricing on the organic market, and a tiny blip compared to global production, and we’re hoping the growers had good insurance. Bananas are tight – rare to say that, but the combination of spreading diseases in the Caribbean, Dominican Republic and other small producing nations struggling to get plantations back to production after a procession of damaging hurricanes, and a few days of very cold weather in the Colima production area in Mexico early last week are all contributing to a supply that is just adequate. In other sectors you would expect prices to rise as growers realize how vital this fruit is, and that there is no extra to go around, but the global banana market is so heavily controlled by just a handful of multi-nationals, price hikes are small and scant. Jumping ahead to mangos. Our winter campaign on Peruvian Kent mangos will erupt in 10 days. First arrival is slated for Jan 4th, give or take. There is solid volumes in Peru at this time and despite the fact that we are, as always, paying Fair Trade production pricing plus social premiums to the Apromalpi Coop, we expect to definitely be in the game price-wise. Start planning now – this is peak of the mango season, and we always find we sell more in the winter than at any other time of the year. All those dollars jingling in people’s pockets are more likely to pick up a mango when there are scant melons in the market, and strawberries are at extremely high prices. Consider an ad and we will pre-ripen for you. What’s Apromalpi? Association of Producers of Mangos from the high (Alto) Piura (valley).
Melon supplies are drying up quickly. After extending the season a few weeks, thanks to much warmer conditions than normal in Sonora, vines are about done. Mini’s are still in reasonable supply, but you can definitely expect a much smaller selection and higher pricing going into the New Year. I believe we’re into our last couple of pallets of Cantaloupe at this time, although there are always surprises.
Here’s what’s hot for the holidays: We always note a surge in sales, despite a usually slow week, on a few things of note: Oranges of course, and despite the price, Cara Cara are certainly the model this week for a spicy and tangy treat. Pomegranates? Who knew, but sales post-Christmas Day seem to grow every year, certainly adding some fabulous colour to otherwise fairly bland tones on a fruit plate.
Desert pears, like Concord and Red Bartlett and Red D’Anjou also add some variety. And of course the biggest hit this time of year is blueberries. We are getting fresh every 4 – 5 days of blues harvested literally the day before. Alberto and his crew have been providing us with beautiful blues, for the most part, since 2010 from small producers nestled up against the Chilean Andes. Blackberry interest continues to increase as well, so don’t worry if you aren’t in the strawberry game (although prices have dropped this week) put your emphasis on blues.
Next to veg, where there are many factors at play. Last year at this time, there was so much broc, lettuce, kale, cauli etc. in the market prices didn’t rise, even for the holidays. So many growers were grumpy as they watched margins erode to the point they were selling far below production costs. Then, in late January, the market started to squeeze higher and higher until prices were astronomical by late March. Well, for growers who were raking it in, those are the days they remembered when it came to planting plans, forgetting the first 3-4 months at the beginning of the winter growing season. I said, “it will never be like this again,” referring to the depressed markets in late fall and early winter, quite comfortably, having talked to enough growers who were going to start late or start small. Well, there’s enough new growers in the mix who saw high markets in the spring and went big-time on production – the wrong way to go, that we continue to see deals on all leafy greens that are head-shaking low. Of course, on top of this, temperatures have been above normal in the desert growing areas in Imperial and Yuma, speeding up January’s crops so they are ready now. Growers there expect cold nights, some light frosts and keep their fingers crossed they don’t see a deep freeze, but instead it has been above 10C at night on average for the last 6 weeks, the coldest temp being around 4C. Daytime highs have been above normal for months. On the coast, where a smaller set of growers produce in the Oxnard / Goleta region north of LA have seen record-breaking temperatures for weeks as well. (That’s where the largest fire in California history continues to be fanned by warm Santa Anna winds.) The combination of a very warm fall across all districts and increased plantings have now proven me completely wrong.
Now, January will look different I imagine. Prices have firmed up on broccoli and Cauliflower has more than tripled, and the celery market continues to increase as coastal growers sell through. For us, price is far less important than quality, and we continue to stick to brands with a notably great track record for shipping us product harvested within 24 hours, pre-cooled properly, and well iced, and Ecocampos provides us with the best quality, week after week, month after month. Rafael, one of the longest serving members of our team has been working on this project in Guanajuato for 5 years and as you know, it shows.
As for individual commodities, Asparagus will become leaner as districts change from Concepcione in southern Baja to Mexicali, then east to Caborca (2 hours south of Tuscon) in the Sonora desert, where it will be spring sooner than here. Expect some increases. Of note, local carrot supply will start to dwindle fairly quickly, with a couple of producers out now, others expected to follow. Winter rains are returning to the Peruvian rainforest which signals that plants are now slowing down and harvests will be smaller and smaller. You realize that it takes between 9 and 15 hours to get to these growing regions from the Coast, it’s still heavily controlled in place by ‘narcos’, and harvests are delivered to Lima in 4 X 4 pickup trucks. There are no trucking routes, so transport is difficult at the best of times. The rest of the entire range of green veg is very stable, although we are predicting a massive amount of Tabouleh will be part of the holiday feast based on the huge amount of parsley we went through this week! The only shake-up will in the sub-tropical markets, with zucchini and cucumbers continuing to be well priced, but pepper and tomato markets continue to be high. That may be due to those growers, who also bled out last year from crazy-low pricing having changed planting volumes and schedules to avoid last year’s mess.
Sorry for being so chatty – first report in 10 days so a lot of information has been festering.
Finally, for those who have had time to read to the bottom, here’s to you and yours, hoping you have an enjoyable holiday season!