Arizona cold weather damaging winter lettuce crop

Prices for winter lettuce grown in southwestern Arizona already are rising because of damage caused by freezing weather, an agricultural expert said Monday.

Yuma County provides much of the nation's leafy greens from November to March, and farmers are reporting damage to many lettuce crops such as the romaine and iceberg varieties.

"The growth of lettuce slows when it is cold," said Kurt Nolte, a Yuma-based agricultural agent for the University of Arizona. "The damage is freezing of the lettuce head. We're seeing two to three layers of leafy material frozen."

The result is lighter, smaller lettuce heads, Nolte said.

"The quality and yield has been affected. This will all translate into much higher prices for the consumer for sure," he said. "In some cases, there may be a shortage."

Nolte said the price for a head of lettuce in the Yuma area usually is around $1. Now it's at $1.99.

The price for a carton of lettuce in Yuma two weeks ago was $7 to $8. As of Monday, it was around $20 per carton, Nolte said. "That's a result of cold weather in the Yuma area for the last six weeks," he said.

Overnight temperatures this week have dipped into the 20s around Yuma, and Nolte said lettuce farmers can't protect their crops.

"It's virtually impossible to cover 80,000 acres in the Yuma area. Nobody has that many throw covers," he said.

Nolte noted protecting lettuce is different from protecting other crops, like citrus.

"With lettuce, you don't have the luxury of wind machines to stir up the atmosphere," he said. "You have to live with what Mother Nature brings. Very little can be done other than maybe running some water to protect what's going to be harvested the next day."

Nolte said Yuma farmers haven't seen much damage so far with other crops such as spinach, cauliflower and broccoli.

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