SALINAS, Calif. -- Lettuce prices dropped at the farm and wholesale levels to more palatable levels last week, with the decreases starting to show up in supermarket produce departments. Retailers told SN they have taken down signs explaining the record-high prices that consumers paid in February and March.
At the store level, prices that approached $4 for a head of green leaf lettuce have fallen back to under a dollar. Chris Hummer, produce manager of Day's Market, Heber City, Utah, said the level of customer inquiries or complaints is likewise significantly down.
"Everything's dropped pretty good just in the past week. Customers are extremely happy," he said. Leaf varieties were on ad when SN contacted Hummer. Their price of 69 cents a head is down from the $2.59 high in mid-March.
Jeff Lowrance, corporate communications manager of Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., said prices of iceberg have "dropped considerably" over the past week.
"At the worst, a head of iceberg was $1.99 a head," he said. "Food Lion's price-per-head will be in the 99 cents to $1.29-a-head range very shortly."
Iceberg lettuce at Day's Market is now selling at 89 cents a pound, down from a high of $2.79, said Hummer. During the period of tight supply that lasted some six weeks, wholesale prices for a carton of iceberg lettuce peaked at about $60. Now, prices are as low as $7, industry analysts said.
California's Fresno County remains the current, main production region, and Salinas Valley farmers have begun harvesting lettuce fields as well, analysts said. Both areas were spared the freezing temperatures that plagued the late-winter growing areas around Yuma, Ariz., which resulted in small crops and prompted the national shortage.
Retailers reacted by placing signage at displays explaining the weather factors to customers, and tried to graciously tolerate customer protests. Operators took special care of the little lettuce they did get, and followed recommended best practices to maximize the shelf life of the greens.
"We had signs in a few markets, explaining that the severe cold weather had led to increases in lettuce prices," said Lowrance. He added Food Lion's policy is to absorb spikes during short-term events, but the lettuce situation was classified as a multi-week, long-term condition.
"But we were able to keep displays stocked at all times," he said, noting reports that some operators around the country had temporarily stopped carrying iceberg lettuce, either because of high wholesale prices or lack of availability.
By late March, however, the situation was tempered by the arrival of certain springtime favorites like asparagus and early strawberries, which helped to divert some consumer attention from lettuce. Hummer said Day's Market customers seemed to refocus their attention on the new arrivals when they came in.
"Right after Easter, we always have a big push on strawberries at a good price, and that took their attention off of the high lettuce prices," he said. Flats of the early berries were going briskly at $10.99, in part because a lot of local residents are fond of making preserves and other jam-types spreads, he said.
Officials who monitored the crop said part of the problem was underestimation by growers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, domestic farmers planted 179,000 acres of lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli during the first three months of this year, down 6% from the year before.