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A Place In The Sun

Salinas Valley tackles a tough year yet remains hopeful

What’s new in the Salinas Valley? Plenty, depending on how you look at it—there are crops in the field at various stages of maturity, there have been dramatic weather shifts, and demand continues to seesaw for many of the Salad Bowl region’s top commodities. But it’s all good, or mostly good, as life in the Valley is frequently a mix of good, better, and ironic when it comes to supply and demand.

Indeed, perfect weather can bring oversupply and stiff competition for growers, but great prices for consumers. Gabe Gallster, sales manager at Green Star Produce Marketing, Inc., puts it this way: “Produce is the only industry where the nicer the product looks, the cheaper you can buy it.”

Rollercoaster Ride
Before the onslaught of early 2017 torrential rains and snowstorms, many grower-shippers in California and elsewhere had an abundance of good weather. The beginning of 2016 had started off with spiking markets and short supply, but the second half’s mild temperatures brought oversupply and soft markets.

“We had consecutive months with poor markets,” remarks Matt Brem, vice president at Produce West, Inc. “The markets were flooded with product and we were well under breakeven for many commodities for too long. We had optimal growing conditions and not as much demand on the retail side,” he says. “Demand in areas such as the East Coast or Midwest weren’t as strong.”

Green Star’s Gallster concurs. “We had great weather and there was a glut of product; no real storms that would cause anything to be short. A year ago, Texas had some issues and California had some great markets. People might have planted in anticipation of a short, but there were no hiccups.”

For Henry Dill, sales manager at Pacific International Marketing, it was more downs than ups. The last half of 2016 “had some of the poorest markets we’ve had to deal with in quite a while,” he says. “We’re not the only game in town anymore; there’s more local stuff grown on the East Coast, and you have Mexico to compete with, so it’s harder and harder to prioritize what to put in the ground each year.”

Of course, all that changed. Weeks of continuous rain flooded some fields, affecting harvests and spring plantings. Between November and February, Brem says the Valley had only one week with no precipitation, which he says may “affect the late spring and early summer markets with volume gaps in certain items.” Among these items are lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, oranges, organic potatoes, and strawberries.

Talking About Organics
The organics side of the coin was more positive, as sales have started to pick up again after plateauing. “California growers are trying to be smart in developing their crop plans,” explains Dill. “Many are expanding acreage in organics or converting conventional to organic as demand continues to grow.” Pacific International grows about 25 percent organic commodities, including leaf and head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery.

Assistant Ag Commissioner for Monterey County Bob Roach confirms the climbing acreage devoted to organics in and around Salinas. “We have significant organic production in Monterey County,” he notes, and it is “increasing slowly over time. It was a little flat from about 2010 to 2012, and now it’s on the rise again.”