Why El Niño Is Driving Up the Cost of Produce
Growers of Mexican asparagus, Florida citrus, and California lettuce are feeling the pinch.
Jan 21, 2016
The arrival of an "El Niño year" always brings a great deal of speculation and concern for people across a variety of industries. The weather phenomenon, induced by increased temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, can have extreme effects. In some parts of the world, like Indonesia and Australia, El Niño brings drought, fires, and water shortages. In North America, though, the effects generally tend to be much more mild.
Generally, the expectation is that El Niño causes Florida, Texas, California, and much of Mexico to experience significantly wetter winters. Many years, the impacts of El Niño barely move the needle, and are frequently welcome as climate change makes drought more commonplace. This year, though, farmers across North America have been impacted by El Niño's heavy rains and unusual temperature patterns.
The weather is directly translating into higher produce prices at the grocery store and restaurants. In November, the price of uber-trendy restaurant staple cauliflower, grown in California, more than tripled from around $20 per case wholesale to $60. Green onions (or scallions) from Mexico and California saw a similar increase, soaring from $13 or $14 per pound to upwards of $40. The prices of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, celery, and asparagus from rain-soaked Florida have also continued to rise, and it's all (or at least mostly) El Niño's fault.
According to Nicholas Pinter, professor at the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, California is the region most correlated with the increased precipitation and cooler temperatures that El Niño brings. "We are in the midst of one of the top three El Niños on record. This year is about the same as in 1997-1998, when the largest El Niño occurred previously," says Pinter.
In California's Salinas Valley, one of the country's major growing regions for everything from cauliflower to wine grapes, the cooler evening temperatures that El Niño brings are also severely stunting the growth of lettuce crops. "These regions have been affected by El Niño tremendously. Instead of the stable weather patterns usually seen in this region, the temperatures fluctuated between very cold and very hot," says Stephanie Blanton of Produce Alliance, a national collective of produce buyers. "Produce doesn't do well in those conditions. It needs consistent temperature."
As a result, your salad is probably about to get a little more expensive. At present, Blanton says that iceberg lettuce is in "act of God" status on the market, which means thatdemand exceeds supply due to external factors like bad weather. The cooler temperatures have also degraded the quality of romaine and iceberg lettuce, which means that you'll likely start seeing bruised and blistered greens in your salad bowl in the coming weeks. Adding insult to injury, cold weather slows the growth of lettuces, which means that it will take even longer for quality product to hit the market.
According to Pinter, El Niño's presence in California has its benefits."Here in California, El Niño follows four years of drought," he says. "A lot of eager eyes are looking toward the Pacific in hopes that we get some rain to abate the severe drought, but not too much." That's the key — not too much rain. For the most part, rainfall in irrigation-dependent regions of California has been used to replenish surface and groundwater supply, including several underground aquifers that were all but wrung dry during the drought. In the beginning of 2016, though, heavy rains have continued to drench already-soaked farmland in Southern California, causing flooding and some concern for landslides. At this point, El Niño-induced torrential rainfall in California shows no sign of slowing down, and even may continue to get stronger.
El Niño's rain hasn't been quite as welcome in Florida, where farmers have been severely impacted by massive thunderstorms. Just last weekend, a storm that produced 50-60 mile per hour wind gustsripped through the state, resulting in two deaths, and according to Blanton, destroying squash and zucchini fields across Florida. "We are seeing severe issues with squash, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes," says Blanton. "Mother Nature is everything in the produce industry. I didn't expect Florida to get hit so hard that entire fields of crops would be trashed. If the weather patterns continue to bring rain and bring weather that's too hot or too cold, I'm not sure when this will stop."
Historically, El Niño hasn't been as strongly correlated with unusual weather patterns in Florida. "The strongest correlation of El Niño is with the desert Southwest and California," says Pinter. "Texas and Florida are impacted by El Niño with fewer levels of certainty." Still, as one of the strongest El Niño years on record, Florida has been slammed by thunderstorms, flooding, and even tornadoes, which introduces yet another layer of complications for Florida growers — logistics.
When a thunderstorm or tornado is looming, it is difficult for farms to send their workers into the fields to pick produce. When farmland is flooded, produce left out in the field begins to rot quickly. It's also difficult for farmers to pack their produce when it is wet, because moisture accelerates decay and the development of mold once soft vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers have been picked.
These after-harvest losses are always part of the equation of growing vegetables, but increased rains have only made the problem worse. According to one organic farmer in Florida, the rain has brought yet another unintended consequence — diluting necessary pesticides and fertilizers that keep crops healthy. "The rain dilutes any of the pesticides we spray and the fertilizer we put on the ground," he says, noting that crop-eating insects and diseases like downy mold love wet conditions. "You can spray to prevent them, but as soon as it rains, you have to go back and re-spray."
Of course, the rain is also impacting Florida's most well-known crop — citrus fruits. Citrus growers are already struggling in Florida thanks to a disease called "citrus greening," caused by the invasion of Asian psyllids. The results are already clear: In January 2015, the National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted that Florida would produce more than 103 million boxes of oranges throughout the course of the year. In 2016, though, that prediction has declined by 33 percent to just 69 million boxes. As a result, citrus prices are expected to climb.
The forecast for the production of tangelos, grapefruit, and tangerines is equally (if not more, in some cases) grim, and increased rains brought by El Niño only compound the problem. During particularly rainy years, citrus trees bloom inconsistently, which reduces yield. In addition to citrus greening, precarious weather conditions are now even more worrying for the industry that brings more than $10 billion in revenue to the state — which in turn produces more than 75 percent of the world's supply of orange juice — every year.
Thanks to decreased production stateside, many produce buyers are looking to Mexico to fill holes in the supply — especially when it comes to staples like celery, which the Produce Alliance's Stephanie Blanton says is currently extremely expensive and in very short supply. "The availability is very weak because of the weather," she says. "This is the longest go in history that we've ever had with one commodity being so expensive and so hard to get for so long. Celery is something you can't really live without."
Unfortunately, El Niño is also causing erratic weather patterns south of the border, which doesn't bode well for farmers, especially those in generally temperature-stable regions where staples like celery and green onions would be grown. Last month, tropical storm Sandra dumped inches of rain on Central Mexico. According to Mark Brusberg, Mexico analyst and chief meteorologist at the U.S.D.A.'s Office of the Chief Economist, El Niño is generally a two-sided coin for the country.
"It's a two-fold thing. This is the time of the year when people are drawing down and would expect sunnier conditions. They would probably appreciate having warmer, drier conditions and the sunshine," says Brusberg. "In Northwestern Mexico, they're finally catching up after several years of drought, so the moisture has been beneficial to a point. Farther east, we've had heavy in rains in and around Tabasco, which is a big producer of winter crops up into Veracruz."
Interestingly, though, it isn't the rain that is causing Mexico's supply issues, it's the temperatures. El Niño brings cooler temperatures to Mexico, which have been devastating for sweet peppers, zucchini and squash, and asparagus in particular. According to Produce Alliance, a significant percentage of Mexico's agricultural acreage delayed production of asparagus, which has seen an overall 80 percent reduction in supply from all sources.
Green onion production has similarly been impacted by cold temperatures, making the typically ubiquitous scallion a rarity and resulting in some pretty extreme pricing. Over the past few months, the cost of a case of green onions has risen from around $13 to $14 per case to between $40 and $50 per case for restaurant owners. In the coming weeks, El Niño's effect on Mexico is expected to fade, which should loosen supply of vegetables that have been scarce for the past few months.
Most of the time, El Niño is at its strongest during the winter, which could mean that the worst of El Niño is behind us. Southern California is already beginning to recover from heavy rains in December and early January, but some speculate that El Niño could have a "second peak" in the coming weeks (or months), which would bring even more precipitation to California.
Using current models, Mark Brusberg predicts that the effects of the phenomenon won't peak until "late spring or early summer." Once El Niño finally ends, though, farmers may regret cursing the rain. "Some models have El Niño transitioning into a La Nina, which could bring drier conditions over next winter," says Brumberg. "We're waiting to see if it goes all the way back to a La Nina, but if that happens, you would expect drier conditions in the Gulf Coast that may translate to drier conditions in Northern Mexico."
Despite this unpredictability, if current predictions ring true, most of the produce threatened this winter will begin to rebound as winter changes into spring. In the meantime, though, diners should expect to pay a premium for their five servings of veggies a day.
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