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As Floods Recede, Veggie Prices Rise

Grayden Jones Staff writer

Crop-damaging California floods are triggering steep price hikes for produce at Inland Northwest supermarkets - and they may go higher.

Grocers said Wednesday that prices for vegetables from California’s “salad bowl” have shot up 30 percent in the past two weeks and may rise another 10 percent this weekend.

The price of lettuce has doubled, topping $1 a head wholesale. Strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower and other fragile crops drowned in standing water also are fetching two to three times more than they did a week ago.

“I don’t think prices are going to come down any time soon,” said Rick Phillips, general manager of Harry O’s Fresh Market, a Spokane retailer which sends a truck to California each week to pick up fresh produce.

Two weeks of rain, hail and snow have caused nearly $400 million in crop losses in California’s rich Salinas Valley, according to that state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. The Central California area is called the “salad bowl” because 80 percent of the nation’s winter salad fixings - including lettuce and tomatoes - are grown there.

Flooding also has washed out highways, slowing distribution and causing premature wilting of some produce before it reaches Spokane.

At the produce counter at Tidyman’s Inc. supermarkets, signs warn shoppers to brace for higher prices and shortages.

Grocers are passing the extra costs on to shoppers. While they expect some resistance, they know there are few winter substitutes for California-grown vegetables.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before and it does slow sales down for a while,” said Bob Stachofsky, vice president of Albertson’s Inland Empire Division. “But we usually sell about the same amount, tonnage wise.”

Restaurants may not be as fortunate. Eating out is an option, and a higher-priced menu could keep customers at home.

“We’ll try to absorb the price hikes,” said Marilyn Northern, owner of The Spokane Salad Co. “It soon may be cheaper to eat at a salad bar than it is to fix it at home.”

Pupo’s Produce Inc., a major Spokane wholesale distributor, warned in a recent memo to retail customers that “product availability is extremely tight and quality is uncertain.” But the situation, the memo said, is temporary.

Tidyman’s President Jack Heuston said he expects a new lettuce and strawberry crop to arrive as early as April, bringing relief to shoppers.

Despite dramatic TV footage of flooded fields, 75 percent of California’s artichoke acreage is still in production and 10,000 acres of strawberries will be harvested this year, said Emma Suarez, spokeswoman for the California Food and Agriculture department.

“We’ll still have a crop,” she said.

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