Lemon prices soar. Blame heat waves, bad weather and insatiable demand

Published August 8 2018
Updated August 8 2018

Jesse Pardo noticed lemon prices climbing a few weeks ago. First they ticked up. Then they soared.

Customers once got four for a dollar. Now they only get two, said the manager at A P Quality Produce on Linebaugh Avenue in Tampa. On Tuesday morning, the store didn’t pick up any at the wholesale distributor.

"We’d normally get some everyday, but we still had a few from the day before," Pardo said. "They’re just too expensive to get stuck with."

Lemons — workhorse citrus in cocktails, the anchor for many fish marinades and the foundation for refreshing summer tarts — are having a moment. A very expensive moment. Cartons that sold wholesale for about $37 in June now cost closer to $60.

Customers have noticed, especially anyone buying in bulk, like restaurants and bars, said Jarrod Bragg of Bearss Groves, near Lake Magdalene Boulevard.

"They are definitely the highest I can remember them getting," said Bragg, who has worked at the store for five years. "I’ve heard several people question whether they are seeing the right price, like they can’t believe it."

The story of soaring prices starts in California, which produces about 95 percent of the domestically grown lemons. As the growing season winds down in June and July, prices often rise a bit. Many growers try to keep lemons on the trees late into the season to benefit from those higher prices. The gamble usually pays off. This year it backfired.

A heat wave settled on the state in early July, including the vital lemon groves around Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. Temperatures topped 105 degrees, causing the fruit to drop early, damaging about 15 to 18 percent of the crop, said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual.

"Probably nine times out of 10, the growers who gamble make a killing," Nelson said. "This year they got burned."

Produce supplier Sysco, an industry heavyweight, went so far as to tweet out on its FreshPoint account that customers should try lemon alternatives.

"A series of unusual weather events has devastated the domestic #lemon crop," the July 17 message read. "Lemons that are available will be poor quality, including excessive skin scarring and off sizes. We encourage substituting #limes when possible."

Foreign imports, which usually fill the gap between California’s growing seasons, also disappointed. Weather affected crops in Chile and Mexico. There was hope that Argentina would bolster supply this summer, but it had issues with pests, disease and shipping.

Our recent love affair with fresh lemons has helped boost prices, too. A half dozen years ago, 65 percent of California’s lemon crop was processed into juice and other products. Now, it has flipped, with 65 percent of the lemons sold fresh, Nelsen said. There’s heavier demand from bars, restaurants and at-home cooks, and people are more frequently choosing fresh lemonade over the concentrated variety. To catch up, farmers have planted more lemon trees, but it takes about four years for them to bear significant fruit.

"We are running like mad to catch up," Nelsen said. "We’ll get there, but it will take a few more years."

As for other California fruits, Nelsen said avocados also took a hit from the heat wave and recent forest fires. Grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines appear to be fine.

Florida isn’t going to help much with the lemon supply, despite its deep-rooted citrus industry. The state used to produce a sizeable amount of lemons, until freezes in the 1980s more or less destroyed the crop. In recent years, the tart citrus fruit has made a small comeback in the state, but the numbers remain a blip compared to California’s $1.4 billion lemon industry. Arizona comes in a distant second.

Nelsen predicted that lemon prices would remain high for six more weeks, at least until the southern California crop near Palm Springs ripens in late September.

"There’s not much to do but wait," he said.

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.


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