If you’ve been roaming the fresh produce aisle recently, you may have noticed that some of the healthy foods in your cart are taking an unusually large bite out of your grocery budget. The price of lettuce, in particular, has jumped as much as 20 per cent to 25 per cent in recent weeks.
Celery has also delivered sticker shock, and the price of cauliflower has been climbing as well.
“It’s pretty straightforward what’s behind it,” said Michael von Massow at the University of Guelph: too much rain in California.
“While we’ve been bemoaning dry weather in California for the past four or five years, what we have right now is lots and lots of rain in the key growing areas,” said von Massow.
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California matters because, until Canada’s domestic production ramps up later in the spring, a lot of our fresh produce comes from the U.S.
Canada’s sourcing shifts across several regions depending on the time of the year. Around Christmas, fruits and vegetables tend to come from California. Later on, Canada turns to Arizona and other parts of the U.S. Southwest. And at this time of the year, it’s California again.
But monster storms in January and February have soaked farmland throughout the Golden State, hurting some crops and delaying planting. Some agricultural regions saw 254 millimetres of rain in January alone. And heavy rain continues in northern California.
All that water from the sky is affecting both quality and the rate at which produce matures. That, in turn, is translating into supply shortages and higher prices in Canada, said von Massow.
Unusually high levels of moisture have created a pest problem to which lettuce, celery and other produce growing close to ground are particularly vulnerable, said Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University.
Historically, prices tend to go up and down a lot in the produce section, reflecting factors like the weather and currency fluctuations. But the price of lettuce and celery, among others, is especially volatile, said Charlebois.
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Organic lettuce and celery are even more affected because organic growers have fewer means to fight destructive insects, he noted.
Some Canadians may have noticed the price swing more than others, as some produce supply chains may have been more affected by the California rains than others said von Massow. Also, retailers and distributors sometimes decide to absorb some of the cost increases in order to keep customers coming in, he added.
But shoppers who are feeling the pinch can take comfort in the knowledge that current high prices won’t last long.
If the rain stops in California in the next few days, prices should come down just as quickly as they went up, said von Massow.
And in May, Canada’s sourcing of fresh produce will shift to the U.S. East Coast. Then Canada’s own produce will finally start filling the shelves, he added.