Friday, February 5, 2016
Los Angeles Times
Why your Super Bowl vegetable platter might cost more this year
By Geoffrey Mohan
Produce seller Rich Uchida is sitting pretty for the Super Bowl right about now. Because it turns out California not only has the 50th edition of the game, it has the Buffalo wings and veggie platters cornered, too.
Uchida’s employer, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, is the king of celery sticks, and isn’t into cauliflower much.
In an industry where timing is everything, both of those positions are important, because it’s been a wild season in the winter produce market dominated by California growers, who are responsible for upwards of 90% of the country’s supply of many winter vegetables.
Drought followed by the rains of El Niño, and heat followed by cold snaps created a cauliflower price boom that now has turned to a bust, and a celery inflation that lingered just long enough, growers and industry experts say.
Carrots, broccoli, lettuce, green onions, and even strawberries have suffered from price swings as well.
“Produce always revolves around weather, so when weather hits extremes, produce hits extremes,” said Stephanie Williams Blanton, vice president of procurement for Produce Alliance LLC, a food service management company that publishes a closely watched weekly industry newsletter.
“All those major commodities were affected because they can’t withstand extreme weather,” Blanton said. Then, when growers moved from the Salinas Valley down to desert regions, a cold snap hit there, she said.
Many crops were delayed for as much as five weeks and yields dropped, leaving a supply gap.
Cauliflower, the darling of the low-carb set, garnered headlines as panicked dieters complained of shortages and high prices.
Wholesale cases of cauliflower rose to an unheard-of $50 in the late fall. In Canada, that and a sagging exchange rate driven by plummeting oil prices pushed consumer prices toward $10 a head.
Lately, though, the whole box of cauliflower goes for about $9, said Brian Antle, vice president of harvest for Tanimura & Antle, based in Salinas. “I was right in the middle of the cauliflower shortage since late fall and pulling my hair out to satisfy demand but that story is old news now,” Antle said.
“It’s at the bottom,” said John Scherpinski, director of sales for Salinas-based D’Arrigo Brothers, the biggest row-crop grower west of the Mississippi. D’Arrigo couldn’t capitalize on the cauliflower boom because it sells largely by contracts signed before the market ran wild.
D’Arrigo also is not into celery, the poster child for this winter’s vegetable market fluctuations. But Duda grows it in California and three others states: Florida, Arizona and Michigan.
“Basically, the celery came on too fast,” in early growing areas such as Ventura County, said Uchida, western regional manager for Duda. Then, just like the cauliflower, growth slowed as cold weather hit.
The crop is still lagging by two weeks, though the shortage is largely over and prices are starting to fall, Uchida said.
Once selling at $38 a box to wholesale buyers, celery hovers around $18 to $22 “and it’s still headed down,” he said. Retail prices peaked at $1.81 a pound two weeks ago, before settling to $1.72 last week, more than double last year’s prices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jumbo carrots in California’s Cuyama Valley have suffered low yields, driving up prices as well, according to Produce Alliance.
Prices for the more common veggie plate variation, the milled and shaped “baby” carrots, are back at peaks hit in November, when demand for many of these holiday dish ingredients usually rises, according to USDA data.
Prices for broccoli, another veggie plate occupant, have come down substantially from a high near $3 a bunch in the second week of December, according to the USDA.
“It’s leveling out right now,” Blanton said of produce prices across the board. “The desert has seen warmer days for a couple of weeks. That’s why produce is getting better. Broccoli, cauliflower, we gave it more time to stay in the ground and mature.”
Duda stayed away from the cauliflower fad and stuck with celery in all forms, supplying soup makers and supermarkets alike. But its sticks, processed in Oxnard, are sold to all the major restaurant chains — Uchida wouldn’t reveal which ones, but if you’re ordering Buffalo wings just about anywhere, chances are you’ll get a side dish of Duda’s sticks.
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“We’re busy with that particular item starting the holiday season, as everyone starts having holiday parties,” Uchida said. “We see an increase in business because of the holiday season, a little lull the first two weeks of January, then it picks up around the Super Bowl.”
Avocados, that other Super Bowl party staple, didn’t suffer the same fate as winter vegetables, according to the Hass Avocado Board. It predicted fans will scarf up 139 million pounds of the stuff during Super Bowl weekend. But the vast majority of it will be from Mexico.
Debate over new supplies is microcosm of state’s water war
By Dan Walters
Despite a wet winter, California’s historic drought continues to spark fierce – even bitter – debate over how the state’s water needs should be met in the future.
The core issue is whether we should primarily rely on conservation of what may be a permanently diminished water supply, or make more energetic efforts to increase the supply with new dams and reservoirs, desalination plants, etc.
The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive, and both are certain to play some role, in the future, so it’s really about their relative emphasis.
Nor is the debate confined just to supply and demand. The availability of water is the key factor in larger issues of land use and economic development, including whether higher-density housing will succeed single-family homes, and whether agriculture, the biggest consumer of water, will expand or contract.
A microcosm of the big debate has been playing out in the State Water Resources Control Board as it revised its drought management regulations.
The emphasis has been on conservation – reducing water use by designated percentages – but some local water agencies have complained that they were being given little or no credit for offsetting the mandated reductions with new supplies.
The San Diego Water Authority and the Orange County Water District, which have actively pursued desalination, wastewater recycling and groundwater replenishment, have been particularly vociferous in seeking credit against conservation targets. They implied that a lack of credits would discourage development of new supplies.
“California water agencies have invested billions of dollars in drought-sustainable water supplies and yet those agencies that have developed sustainable supplies are not receiving credit for their investment,” the Orange County agency told the board in a December letter.
Both suggested that the board give full offsets for their projects, while requiring a minimum 8 percent conservation “floor” for all districts.
This week, the board kept revised conservation targets in place, ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent, but agreed to give agencies up to an 8-percentage-point credit for drought-sustainable supplies – not as much as they wanted, but still something.
Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus called it “a little course correction” and “reasonable,” but said the state still must plan for a resumption of drought after this year.
It was not only a skirmish in the conservation vs. supply debate, but also could affect another big water issue – whether twin tunnels should be bored beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to make water deliveries to Southern California more reliable, as Gov. Jerry Brown wants.
The drought has spurred both more intensive conservation efforts and more intensive efforts to develop drought-sustainable supplies in the Southland. Slowly, but surely, the region is becoming less dependent on water from the north, and as it does, the primary rationale for the tunnels – and tapping water users to pay for them – fades.
Dan Walters: 916-321-1195, email@example.com, @WaltersBee
To make the most of rain, state needs Delta tunnels
By John Laird
This week I testified at a legislative hearing on implementing the $7.5 billion water bond passed by voters in November 2014. One legislator asked me if the state was positioned to capture extra rainwater if El Niño brings a strong rainy season.
I pointed out that many California reservoirs are empty enough to capture much of the runoff from this year’s rainstorms, but that isn’t the full story.
California depends upon capturing water when it’s available. Between Jan. 5 and Jan. 31, we missed the opportunity to capture 290,000 acre-feet of water – enough to supply 580,000 homes for a year. The volume of water we have failed to store this month continues to rise.
Similarly, in the winter of 2012-13 – which turned dry after a wet start – we missed the chance to capture at least 700,000 acre-feet of water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
That’s because the pumping system in the Delta for California’s major water projects is outdated. It poses a risk to native fish and frequently must be restricted, even in the winter when flows are high.
The federal and state pumping plants, built more than half a century ago, are in the south Delta. They pull water through channels in unnatural directions. These “reverse flows” pull fish into dead-end zones in the Delta, where they must be trucked out to safer habitat to survive.
The intakes and tunnels proposed by the Brown and Obama administrations to modernize Delta water infrastructure are the subject of lively debate. Yet the discussion seldom includes the point that without them, we cannot maximize the storage of extra water in wet years.
If the proposed project had been in place last month, additional water could have been drawn into the San Luis Reservoir without violating water-quality standards or rules to protect threatened and endangered fish. The water would be available to serve homes and businesses from San Jose to San Diego and to supply farms from Tracy to Bakersfield.
Much of the debate over the proposed tunnels project revolves around whether it will take additional water from the Delta. Truth be told, in years of below-normal precipitation, there would not be much difference from the amount of water that is taken now.
Yet in wet years, when environmental needs are fully met, some of the high flows could be taken for water supply and routed through screened intakes that minimize harm to Delta smelt, salmon, sturgeon and other native species. We can improve how we move water from the Delta. New intakes in the northern Delta on the Sacramento River would provide a physical fix to the “reverse flows” problem by not drawing fish to places they otherwise wouldn’t be.
This is a polarized debate, yet the status quo in the Delta is far worse. It involves continued risk to species already at their lowest recorded population levels and increasingly erratic water deliveries.
Any proposal to improve the current situation must allow us to capture high flows in the rainiest of years. We need to continue our heavy investment in the conservation, water recycling, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture and desalination that will help make each region of California as self-reliant as possible.
But the 25 million Californians who depend upon the Delta pumping system also need those peak flows from wet years, especially as climate change renders our weather increasingly unpredictable.
John Laird is California secretary for natural resources. He can be contacted at John.Laird@resources.ca.gov.
San Francisco Chronicle
Plan to remove 4 Klamath River dams marks environmental milestone
One of California’s largest and most elusive environmental goals is within reach. A doomed deal to remove four Klamath River dams strung across the Oregon border is alive again with the promise to revive plummeting fish runs, restore historic water flows and sidestep Washington gridlock.
If the dams come down, possibly within four years, the change will be one of the most monumental ever seen on a major river. For nearly a century, the power dams have backed up flows that cut off salmon rearing areas and poured warm, algae-flecked water downstream that killed migrating fish.
The deal is a milestone in other ways. Nearly a decade of talks among Indian tribes, Oregon farmers and California interests produced a complicated three-part agreement to guarantee water for crops, restore the watershed and take down the dams with the support of its operator, the PacifiCorp utility.
When a Republican-dominated Congress balked in the belief the dams were worth saving, the deal cratered last month. The new agreement avoids the need for congressional blessing and will move ahead with the support of the governors of California and Oregon and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Three of dams are in California, and the fourth is in Oregon.
Dam removal is estimated to cost up to $500 million with the money coming from an already approved California bond measure and PacifiCorp customers in both states. The utility went with demolition because the costs of required fish ladders around the dams was exorbitant.
The timing is both odd and fitting. Tearing down dams in midst of an epic drought sounds irrational, but the four backed-up lakes aren’t connected to California’s water supply system and produce relatively little power. Oregon farmers pushed for water above the dams, obviating their importance to agriculture.
Salmon counts on the Klamath and Sacramento, the state’s two prime fish-producing rivers, are dropping. Restoring the runs will be a major test with the rest of the Pacific Northwest watching. Taking out the dams, with decades of silt and debris behind them, will be a turning point.
The latest plan has a missing piece. It leaves out a pledge to supply water to upper Klamath farmers in Oregon, who faced erratic supplies as rainfall wavers. The overall project to decommission the dams is worth pursuing, but this group should not be left out.
There are other messages in the deal along with saving fish and junking old infrastructure. California is once again skirting obstructionists in Washington, as it has in drawing up its own rules on smog controls, climate change and the treatment of immigrants. Practical results that answer this state’s needs are winning out over hidebound ideology.
The lengthy talks and eventual results can serve as encouragement that solutions to this state’s larger water problems can happen. The bottled-up Klamath could be a sign that deal making, science and environmental concern can produce solutions for the future.
National Public Radio
USDA Imposes Stricter Limit On Salmonella Bacteria In Poultry Products
By Dan Charles
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new, stricter limit on salmonella bacteria in poultry products. It’s a new attempt to make headway against one of the country’s biggest, and most intractable, food safety problems.
Salmonella bacteria on raw poultry and fresh produce are estimated to cause about 1 million cases of illness in the U.S. each year. It has proved difficult to reduce that number because the bacteria are so commonly found in the environment, and especially in poultry.
Even when companies wash chicken carcasses after slaughter, the USDA has found the bacteria on about a quarter of all cut-up chicken parts heading for supermarket shelves. It’s a good reason to handle raw chicken carefully, wash your hands afterward, and cook the meat well.
Under the USDA’s new standard, companies will be required to reduce the frequency of contaminated chicken parts to 15 percent or less. The new standard also sets limits for turkey and ground meat products. A separate standard covers another disease-causing type of bacterium, called Campylobacter.
Alfred Almanza, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety, says that after a year of testing, the USDA will start posting test results from each poultry processing plant online for consumers to see.
“[This] is not a good thing for them, if they’re failing,” Almanza says. “So those are pretty significant deterrents, or incentives for them to meet or exceed our standard.”
The USDA says that when companies meet this new standard, 50,000 fewer people will get sick from salmonella each year.
But there’s a lot of guesswork in that calculation, and some are not convinced that it’s really true. William James, for instance, the former chief veterinarian for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, thinks the USDA’s entire approach to controlling salmonella is flawed. James now works as a consultant for private companies.
James points to the agency experience with an earlier version of the salmonella standard, which he helped put in place. It did reduce the amount of salmonella bacteria that were found on poultry, yet illness rates did not drop.
The problem, he says, is that these USDA standards treat all salmonella alike, when there actually are more than 2,000 different genetic strains of the bacterium, and most of them don’t make people sick. In fact, the ones that don’t make you sick probably are beneficial, because they compete with the salmonella strains that really are dangerous, James says.
James wants poultry companies to take more accurate aim at their problem. “The key here is probably to focus on those few types that are causing illness, and get serious about trying to eliminate those,” he says.
He says that poultry companies should be testing their chicken houses for those specific bacteria, such as one strain called Salmonella Heidelberg. When the bacteria show up in a flock, those chickens should be slaughtered separately, he says, and the buildings where they lived should be decontaminated.
The USDA’s Almanza agrees that having a standard based on the prevalence of all salmonella is imprecise, but he thinks it still will help uncover food safety problems. “If you have a high level of salmonella, you are going to have some that are of significance to public health,” he says.
He believes that the new standard, and the power of posting test results online, will force companies to take additional measures to make sure their products are safe.
World Ag Expo preview: Corraling rustlers, washing solar panels, and a whole lot more
By Robert Rodriguez
The World Ag Expo, the largest trade show of its kind, is getting ready to launch its three-day run at the International Agri-Center in Tulare.
The annual event begins Tuesday and is expected to attract thousands of visitors from throughout the state, nation and world.
Inside the sprawling grounds of the Agri-Center will be more than 1,500 exhibitors sharing 2.6 million square feet of space. Nearly everything connected to agriculture can be found at the expo, from massive multi-row harvesters to sophisticated software designed to increase efficiency.
Last year, the event drew 102,867 people over its three-day run. Of those, 83 percent were from the U.S. and 17 percent were international visitors.
The expo pours millions of dollars into the region’s economy. In 2010, expo officials estimated the economic impact to the San Joaquin Valley was $600 million.
Restaurants and hotels are swarmed during the event. And even the Visalia Municipal Airport sees an uptick in activity.
“We will see a huge increase, probably five times our average,” said Mario Cifuentez, Visalia’s airport manager. “We will see corporate jets, Gulfstream jets, Citation jets and even single-engine Cessnas land here.”
Entering its 49th year, the expo has grown from a humble gathering known as Tulare’s Field and Row Crop Equipment Show to a mega event that requires 65 acres of parking.
THE place to debut products
“This is where you come when you have a product that you want agriculture to pay attention to,” said Dennis Dop, vice president of sales for RSI Video Technologies in Minnesota.
Dop’s company was one of the expo’s Top 10 new product award winners. The company manufactures a video alarm system that is part motion detector and part built-in video camera. It operates on battery power, allowing it to be used in areas without electricity.
Once the motion sensor is triggered, the camera records a 10-second video clip that is sent to a monitoring station and the property owner. Dop said the system is being used to protect against the theft of copper wire, farm equipment and livestock.
“We have some modern-day cattle rustlers out there who will back a truck up, load some cows and off they go,” Dop said. “With this system, not only are you alerted to something happening, but now you also get a photo that you can give to law enforcement.”
Another item that could generate interest is a product called MegaWash, made by Coldwell Solar, Inc. in Rocklin. The MegaWash system is a mobile tractor that cleans solar panels while using less water than traditional hand washing.
“With all the solar systems being used on farms these days, this could save both water and manpower,” said Marissa Carpenter, spokeswoman for the World Ag Expo, echoing a theme that resonates through much of the event: Enticing farmers with water-saving equipment and technology as well as methods to reduce labor costs and meet tighter food safety regulations.
Tours, demos, documentary – and, of course, food
Although the expo is heavy on equipment and technology, it also offers several other attractions, including farm tours, cooking demonstrations, and the screening of the documentary, “Dead Harvest.” The film – a look at the drought’s impact on agriculture – will be shown twice a day at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Heritage Complex.
Generating their own fair share of crowds will be the many food booths run by non-profit groups, churches and schools. It takes about 70 volunteers from the Sundale Union Elementary School District to staff its food booth each day.
The school is known for its succulent, half-pound rib-eye sandwiches. Lines begin forming at about 11 a.m. and will be 20 people deep by lunchtime.
The school district estimates it will sell about 20,000 steak sandwiches during the expo.
“If you are a meat lover, this is your go-to sandwich,” said Ann Marie Acevedo, the district’s secretary. “We are very proud of what we do and we hope it continues for years to come.”
Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob, firstname.lastname@example.org