Growers' Insights: Greens costing more green

Published in FSD Update

Farmers say heavy rains and food safety assurance are making it more expensive to grow leafy greens this year.

Producing leafy greens has become more expensive this year, due to heavy rains driving down yield, says second-generation farmer, Larry Corn. Corn raises 2,000 acres of produce each year, including mustard greens, kale, collards, cabbage and broccoli, in Palatka, Fla. Corn says that his tender greens are also all harvested by hand, requiring lots of labor.

“Input costs have all gone up over the last several years,” says Terry Granzier, president of Lakeside Produce Distribution, which is based in Rocky River, Ohio. Lakeside Produce dedicates about 3,000 acres per year across multiple states to provide cabbage year-around to their customers by rotating crops, beginning in January in Florida, followed by spring crops in Georgia, a summer harvest in Michigan and a second Georgia crop harvested in late November.

“Costs for cardboard, plastics, farm fuel, cooling costs, labor and the petroleum-based fertilizer we use on cabbage have all gone up,” Granzier says. Although Lakeside has secured private contracts to sell its leafy greens by the pound to salad manufacturers, Granzier says that most farmers offer cabbage on the open market for around $10 per 50-pound carton, although prices change continually. “The market has been variable and very responsive to supply and demand in recent years,” Granzier says, explaining that the U.S. has had two hot, dry summers, followed by a very wet season on the East Coast last year, meaning less cabbage entered the market.

“Historically, foodservice has been our primary market,” says Richard Collins, president of California Endive, America’s only grower of Belgian endive, which produces nearly 5 million pounds each year. “Our main market competition comes from Dutch and Belgian shippers importing into the East Coast,” Collins says. “The stable dollar/Euro exchange rate has kept prices there fairly even over the last few years.”

Food safety assurances for leafy green produce represent a huge cost factor as well. A few cost-inducing factors include pathogen tests done in the field, monthly swab tests for coolers and equipment and stringent tests for water sources. Lee Anne Oxford, the director of marketing for L&M Cos., says, “Food safety is expensive, but for us, it’s simply the price of doing good business.”

Granzier agrees, adding, “We take safety extremely seriously and work hard to ensure there are no weak links in the food safety chain. One incident can give the whole industry a black eye, but when you consider the thousands of pounds of fresh produce consumed in the U.S. each year and how few problems there are, you realize there are many effective safety controls in place.”

Trends in greens

Although it’s costing farmers more to grow greens lately, consumers are eating them up.

According to Beth Brown, executive director of the Leafy Green Council, a general list of vegetable leaves that people eat includes arugula, beet greens, endive, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, curly endive, dandelion greens, escarole, kale, flowering kale, lettuces (including Boston, Bibb, iceberg, leaf and romaine), mâche, mustard greens, radicchio, rapini, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens and watercress.

“There are more varieties for each category listed,” Brown says. “Collard greens and cabbage are gaining in popularity, as people are looking for more variety and options regarding vegetable choices.” Brown believes that the health benefits and tastiness of leafy greens are driving these new trends, as well as the recent popularity of kale as a superfood.

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