You won't find bell peppers at the Jacquemin Farms market in Plain City, Ohio, and you can thank California for that.
To be more accurate, it's the 3-year-long drought in California that is to blame. Prices for most fruits and vegetables will rise up to 6 percent through the end of the year because of those conditions, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I refused to buy green peppers," farm manager Kerry Sullivan said, referring to how she normally buys the vegetable in quantity and then resells them. "I can't pay $45 to $50 for a bushel of green peppers."
At that price, Sullivan would need to charge $2 per pepper to break even -- and it's the same pepper folks can buy at Kroger or Giant Eagle.
The USDA also reported that California's drought has the potential to increase food-price inflation above the historical average in coming years. Overall, U.S. food prices will increase by up to 3.5 percent this year compared with last year, with meat and dairy products rising slightly more than that at 4 percent.
Giant Eagle has seen increases on items such as grapes, peaches, nectarines, lettuce and squash, according to spokesman Dan Donovan.
Local produce growers are insulated from the drought because they base their prices on local conditions and costs, Sullivan said. Most of what she sells at the farm market is grown on the farm or nearby. For instance, Sullivan will have watermelons but not until August when the local crop is harvested.
Right now, "watermelons are crazy high," Sullivan said. California is a major melon producer.
Large grocers, which stock many kinds of fresh produce year round, don't have as much flexibility.
"While it is difficult to source many affected items from other parts of the country at this time of year," Donovan said, "regionally sourced produce items have started becoming available in-store in recent weeks, helping to ensure adequate product availability throughout the summer."
California dominates U.S. food production. The state ranks first in a smorgasbord of crops according to the USDA: broccoli, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, cantaloupe, spinach, almonds, garlic, celery, tomatoes, plums, figs, dates, pistachios, lemons, walnuts, apricots, avocados, grapes, olives, cauliflower, honeydew, onions, hot and sweet peppers, lettuce, beans and artichokes.
California farmers produce half of the nation's fruits and vegetables. The state's three-year drought forced its farmers to idle about 500,000 acres.
"Lettuce prices increased the most, and that's a direct result of the California drought," said Annemarie Kuhns, an economist with the USDA. "Almost 70 percent of the nation's lettuce is grown in California."
So far, locally produced fruit-and-vegetable prices haven't spiked, Sullivan said. She doesn't expect to see significantly higher prices for her own produce, either.
"The prices to me have not been crazy," Sullivan said. "Beans were a little high. Corn is about the same."
By JD Malone - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
Information from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.
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