December 9, 2022

Why is my Lettuce so Expensive?

You’ve probably noticed lately that lettuce prices have been sky high! It’s even possible, you’ve been asked to pay extra for lettuce on burgers or sandwiches at your favorite restaurant.  What?!!!  An extra charge for avocado – maybe. But lettuce?  Lettuce is normally a staple produce item so plentiful they use it just to line the salad bar. Why the heck is lettuce all of a sudden so expensive?!

Like many things these days, farming is becoming increasingly expensive as costs for labor, fuel, fertilizer and just about every input needed to grow food are at record highs. But when it comes to lettuce, the situation is a bit more dire.

The good news (we hope) is that most of the cost increases are likely temporary and people should see relief soon. But some of the problems behind the price hikes may persist beyond his year.  To break it all down, we’re here to explain a few  of the challenges faced by growers that are driving lettuce prices up:

1. Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus. In recent years, a virus spread from plant-to-plant by a pest known as the Western Flower Thrips has become increasingly problematic. The insect itself is known to cause damage to several fruit and vegetable crops including onions, tomatoes,cucumbers and melons. But its role in spreading the Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus is causing significant economic losses to lettuce and spinach crops in the Salinas Valley. This year has been the worst yet.

© 2022 Regents of the University of California. Used by permission.

Fortunately, the virus didn’t infect every field in the Salinas Valley and many farmers escaped the disease altogether. For others, the damage was severe with entire fields lost.

Controlling thrips is key to stopping the spread of this virus. But growers use fewer pesticides these days and many of products that could effectively control the pest are no longer legal in California. Organic growers have the most difficulty.

A task force of growers and researchers has been formed to help find solutions. Developing new lettuce varieties that are resistant to the virus is the most promising option, but this solution will take time. On a brighter note, the virus is not yetwidely present in the lettuce growing areas of southern California or Arizona, which will be harvesting throughout the Winter. As a result, lettuce supplies are expected to increase soon and with that will come a price drop.

2. Drought Taking its Toll. The lack of available irrigation water throughout California continues to be a factor for farmers. This is particularly so for the inland farming areas of the San Joaquin Valley where lettuce is often grown to fill the gap in supplies as lettuce harvest transitions from the Salinas Valley to the southern desert areas. But lack of available water in the San Joaquin Valley continues to curtail lettuce plantings there. As a result, Fall lettuce supplies were significantly shorter this year – a factor that contributes greatly to increased prices.

The state is doing all it can to conserve water and stringent new regulations require growers to restore underground water reserves. But the only real solution in the short- term is more rain and snow this Winter.

3. Harvest Timing. In any given year, it’s not unusual for lettuce prices to rise a bit during the Fall. As noted above, Fall is a time when harvest transitions from the central California coastal regions to southern California and Arizona.  As harvest in the desert hits its stride this Winter, supplies will increase again and prices will drop.

This is good news. But, please keep this in mind — things have been tough for farmers everywhere this year. California and Arizona still produce the lion’s share of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed by Americans. And these two states are among the world’s most challenging and expensive places to farm.

Lettuce farmers know that high prices make it tough for lettuce shoppers too. They’re doing all they can to keep prices as low as possible. So, don’t give up on lettuce. With so many varieties to choose from, something is always plentiful and economical. We encourage you to use this guide to explore the many taste and flavor options available if you can’t find (or afford) your go-to leafy green.  Who knows – perhaps you’ll find a new favorite?!