Why is there a lettuce shortage? Australians warned prices won’t come down any time soon

Empty Shelves

Consumers are being warned to get used to cabbage in their burgers or paying more than $10 for a lettuce, with no end in sight for high fruit and vegetable prices.

While the sudden price spike hit quickly, wholesalers say it will take longer for prices to come down as growers face a ‘perfect storm’ of bad conditions.

Anthony Joseph, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, and exporter, said wet weather in south-east Queensland meant growers lost one crop and struggled to plant the next one as freezing temperatures set in.

“Things like baby leaf spinach and wombok are going for three to four times their normal price,” he said.

Mr. Joseph, who is the managing director of Alfred E. Chave, at the Brisbane Markets, said the flood event in February was detrimental to land preparation for the autumn and winter crops, which, he said, caused the gap in supply experienced over the past four to six weeks.

Cos lettuce damages

Shannon Moss’ Locyrer Valley cos lettuce crop was destroyed by water and mud and had to be ploughed back into the ground. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

The February flood was swiftly followed by another catastrophic rain event that hit the Lockyer Valley right as lettuce was due to be harvested, wiping out entire crops.

But now, Mr. Joseph said the cold front moving in would prevent farmers from quickly growing more food to ease the shortage.

man with folded arms standing near steps

Anthony Joseph, says consumers should expect the price hikes on fresh produce to stick around for the coming months.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“The really concerning thing about this is that we’ve got these high-pressure systems coming through as we head into winter, and we’re going to see really low temperatures,” he said.

“We’ve got ground that’s wet and cold. Crops just aren’t going to grow in these conditions.”

When will prices come back down?

The combination of crops lost to the rain, and struggling plantings due to the cold means wholesalers like Mr. Joseph expect the shortage of fresh produce to last for at least the next couple of months.

Carlo Trimboli,  the chair of the NSW Chamber of Fresh Produce and the managing director of Samson’s Fruit and Vegetable Supply, said as long as the supply was low across the industry and demand continued, so would high prices.

He estimated that his wholesale supply was down by 80 per cent.

“It’s really critical,” he said.

“The prices of produce are high, but the volume that normally goes through the central market system and through to retailers is dramatically reduced.”

Coles Apology

Coles is anticipating further supply chain disruptions over the coming weeks. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

So while it might be tempting to think farmers and suppliers are profiting from the high prices, the reality is prices are high because many simply don’t have any crops to sell.

“No-one is really benefiting,” Mr. Trimboli said.

“That’s the honest truth.”

“Prices are strong, and some [farmers are getting] potentially high prices, but their volumes are down, and there’s also a lot of farms that missed out on [a crop] totally.”

No-one is getting ahead

Out near Stanthorpe in southern Queensland, the Gasparin brothers are three growers who have never seen their produce sold for so much.

Andrew Gasparin said vegetables like cauliflower and wombok lettuce were going for $10 each, $80 per box.

And while for consumers, it feels like a sudden spike, he said prices had been up for most of the season.

“We’ve probably averaged $40 a box for the whole season,” he said.

“I’d say a normal season. We average $20 [per box].”

But the Gasparin brothers, like many other growers, have not had an easy season.

“We’ve had a lot of days walking through paddocks cutting vegetables in gumboots and walking through mud and bogging tractors,” he said.

“We’re at least getting double what we normally would get, but we need our prices to go up now because all our commodities have gone up.”

“There have been big price [increases] in fertilisers, fuel, and even just our packaging costs are going up 70 cents per unit.”

The three Gasparin brothers stand together.

Andrew, Mark, and David Gasparin grow vegetables near Stanthorpe in Southern Queensland. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

So even while the prices are good, if you are lucky enough to produce to sell, it costs more to grow, pack and ship, which means farmers like Mr. Gasparin are not actually making any more money than in the past year.

Those costs are high due to global factors like the war in Ukraine, which for Mr. Gasparin means it was hard to know when the costs might ease.

“We don’t know where things will go from here,” he said.

“Now it’s off-season, and, my family, we still buy fruit and veg, and we’re feeling the prices too.”

“Even going into the next season, our paddocks are soaking wet. I don’t know how we are going to prep for growing if it stays wet. We can’t get on to get our ground ready.”

“In the future, our prices could be a lot higher.”

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