Bell peppers from Coachella encounter strong markets

Issue Date: June 3, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Demand for bell peppers has been high this spring. Coachella Valley farmers say markets have been particularly strong, with prices much elevated from a year ago, chiefly because competing supplies from Mexico have been smaller than usual.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

The Coachella Valley's bell peppers have had an interesting 2020 so far.

"I would say the weather has been variable," said Drew Belk, a vegetable grower in Thermal. He started planting in December and has been harvesting for nearly two months.

"We had good planting conditions, and then we had up-and-down weather throughout the whole season," Belk said. "We had a couple inches of rain in April that really kind of threw us a curveball, as far as bloom set. We had some later fields that just had, basically, a light set of fruit."

As a result, he added, he was packing fewer peppers than usual the past week. He's presently harvesting green and red bells, and a handful of yellows.

Then came the heat. Memorial Day week brought a heat wave with temperatures pushing 109. Peppers are self-pollinating and tend to lose their set in hot, cold or rainy weather, Belk said.

Mark Nickerson, a Coachella pepper grower, said the inconsistent weather "made some of the sets irregular, some of them more concentrated than you'd like to have" for his green-pepper crop. "I'd say in general the crop was good."

The same is true of the markets, a bright spot in a time of turmoil.

"The good part, no matter what the production was, the market was strong," Nickerson said. "We were doubtful how that was going to be, with all of the circumstances that are going on."

Belk said issues in other growing regions opened the door for the Coachella Valley crop, which ordinarily would be competing with Mexican imports for about a month.

"We walked into an unbelievable situation," Belk said, calling it "probably a once-every-10-year event."

"I never would have imagined that we would have hit the market we've had for the last six weeks," he said. "It's been surprisingly good for bell peppers, but I think it has nothing to do with the COVID. It has everything to do with a lack of production out of Mexico right at this time."

Green bell peppers from Coachella were commanding $24.95 to $28.95 per carton for extra-large varieties as of May 29, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the end of May 2019, the price was $12.95 to $16.95. A carton of large bells was selling for $22.95 to $24.95 as of May 29, compared with $14.95 to $16.95 a year earlier.

Bell peppers were Riverside County's fifth-most valuable crop in 2018, according to the county agricultural commissioner's office; the crop report for that year shows 92,200 tons of peppers harvested from 4,166 acres, with a crop value of $79 million.

If competing regions' production had been typical, Belk said, the food-service market "could have been really ugly." But with most of the country beginning to reopen, demand presently exceeds supply.

"This area here was fortunate to have supplies that fit a niche," said Nickerson, who called the food-service market "a good surprise."

Belk said last week's extreme heat took a toll on people and produce alike.

"We try to get done as early as we can," he said. "We don't run a full day in this kind of weather."

In extreme heat, he said, he aims to have crews out of the fields by noon.

Peppers would normally be loaded into open trucks for a 20-mile trip into the packinghouse, Belk said; in the triple-digit heat, they were instead loaded into reefers in the field to jump-start the cooling process.

Only one of Belk's two packinghouses is online at the moment, and he's switched to field packing to spread people out as part of his COVID-19 precautions, he added.

Nickerson said his harvest of red bell peppers has been underway for about a week.

"That crop looks, overall, better in my opinion than the green crop did," he said. "So far, the market on it looks healthy, and I'd say there's a lot of enthusiasm that the deal's going to be a good season."

(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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