Celery prices settle back after booming in 2019

Issue Date: January 22, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

Internet fame is fleeting, but celery is forever.

With a celebrity-driven celery-juice boom now in the rear-view mirror, celery markets have leveled off, with Oxnard and Coachella Valley pricing returning roughly to year-ago levels after spiking during 2019.

"It seemed to peter out a little bit here already after the first of the year," said Danny Pereira, a Ventura County vegetable grower. "I don't necessarily know if demand is off or if volumes are up. It just seems to be that there's just a little more celery out there right now compared to last year."

As for this season, Pereira said the holidays brought decent demand and good prices. Harvest typically starts in late October or early November.

"You typically do get a little reduction in volume after the holidays," he said.

Pereira, immediate past president of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County and chairman of the Celery Research Advisory Board, described the 2019 celery season as "phenomenal" in the wake of an online health guru's celery-juice recommendation last spring and subsequent celebrity endorsements.

Last April, cartons of conventional celery from Oxnard sold for as much as $70 while organic brought $75, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As of Jan. 6, Oxnard conventional celery was selling for $10.15 to $15.56 and organic for $18.50 to $18.85.

"There still seems to be demand for celery," Pereira said. "I don't think it was necessarily a fad, but you know, when something new starts out and it just gets a lot of publicity, I think it really takes off from that. I think that's kind of calmed down a little bit."

Dean Diefenthaler, vice president of Western operations at Duda Farm Fresh in Oxnard, made the same observation.

"We're not seeing that this year, to the extent that we saw last year," Diefenthaler said. "We seem to have a more normal stream and pricing."

California farmers harvested 28,300 acres of celery in 2018, according to the USDA. The crop was valued at $424.5 million. Numbers for 2019 are still being compiled.

Ventura and Monterey counties accounted for roughly three-quarters of the 2018 crop, with 12,151 and 9,382 acres respectively, according to county crop reports.

Diefenthaler said the Oxnard celery deal usually wraps up by the end of June but can extend into mid-July. He's seen no real weather concerns, aside from November and December rains that curtailed planting.

"You would expect some issues coming in March and April out of November and December plantings, because you're planting into wet ground," he said. "Your land preparation really wasn't as good as you'd like to have it."

Coastal celery growers have been dealing with a major headache: Fusarium race 4.

"It's a soil-borne disease that kills the celery stalk," Pereira said. "Very devastating; (it's) been a huge issue for us here in Ventura County."

Oleg Daugovish, a University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor in Ventura, said Fusarium prefers warmer weather and tends to proliferate when temperatures reach the upper 60s and 70s.

"Planting during the cold period of the season probably will have less likelihood of disease development, and maybe you can grow a crop even organically," Daugovish said.

Fusarium race 4 gets into the plant's vascular tissue, he said, leading to wilting in warmer weather when affected plants can't transpire water to cool off.

As no resistant or tolerant varieties are available, a celery grower's anti-Fusarium arsenal is rather sparse. The disease can stay in the soil for as long as 10 years even without a susceptible host, Daugovish said.

"There's not a lot of things we can do economically," he said. "You can fumigate, and of course that's a very expensive undertaking. What you can do is, you can map areas with Fusarium and fumigate just those sections."

Fusarium race 4 also infects cilantro, Daugovish said; crop-rotation options could include cabbage, peppers or tomatoes.

"The best thing you could do: If you have clean fields, don't bring the soil, don't bring plant material, don't bring anything that may contain this pathogen into this new area," he said. "Once it's in this field, well, it could be there for several years."

Wet and muddy fields can make sanitation difficult, he noted.

Diefenthaler said the disease "does seem to continue to be moving" in his area.

"It's a challenge that is going to be facing this county for a long time to come," he said, noting that his company practices crop rotation to deal with the problem.

Organic growers' options are even more limited. Scouting, mapping and sanitation are probably the best bets, Daugovish said. Soil steaming machines exist but are very expensive, and only a handful are available, he added.

"We don't have enough heat for the solarization for organic," Daugovish said. "It literally comes down to sanitation, one, and secondly, finding that variety with tolerance."

Challenges aside, Diefenthaler said he's pleased people are taking notice of fresh and value-added celery—ready-to-eat sticks that have been washed and cut.

"I think a lot of people were intrigued by what might have been said in the news and in the internet and things of that nature," Diefenthaler said. "All we can say is, we're glad to be providing what we feel is a healthy, nutritious product."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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