Who knew what Ivan could do to Aspen? | AspenTimes.com

Who knew what Ivan could do to Aspen?

Scott Condon
Clarks produce clerk Dom Frazier sifts through boxes of tomatoes to find the best ones to sell. The majority of [Clarks] produce comes from California, says the 17-year grocery store veteran. But when a hurricane hits Florida and wipes out the crop there, the whole country buys from California increasing the price, but not the quality. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

Aspenites are paying the price for what Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne did to Florida.The four hurricanes that battered Florida earlier this year teamed with rains that soaked California to provide a one-two punch to fresh fruits and vegetables. Crops were destroyed in Florida. Wet conditions delayed planting in California.As a result, households and restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley, like others around the country, are paying at least double the amount as last year for most produce. Prices aren’t expected to come down for at least a couple of months, according to buyers for two of the main produce suppliers in the Aspen area.And while prices are up, the general quality of produce is down.

“When prices are high, they say the trash cans are empty,” said Kirk Massey, refrigerated product manager for Shamrock Foods Co. of Denver.Massey, who buys produce for Shamrock, was quick to add that his company can still find quality fruits and vegetables because of long-standing relationships with farmers.But his point, he said, is that the produce shortage and high prices have encouraged some farmers to ship fruits and veggies that they would withhold in normal circumstances. The money is too good to throw away marginal products.He warned consumers to use a keener eye than usual when picking out produce in grocery stores right now. “Go to the places that are known for quality,” he said.

Larry Hedges, produce manager for Clark’s Market in Aspen, said he has been pleased with the quality of produce – when he can get his orders filled. The weather conditions are making it tougher to find some veggies. And prices are at least double what they were last year for some items, he said.Roma tomatoes, for example, sold for 99 cents per pound before the shortage affected the market. Now they are selling for $2 per pound.It’s a simple situation of supply and demand. Florida produce generally supplies the East Coast, Massey explained. But with the Florida crops wiped out and some of the California crops delayed or lost, there was less to go around. Farmers in the southwestern United States, Texas and Mexico couldn’t fill the void.Prices for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants, as well as citrus products, hit all-time highs about one month ago, according to Phil Espinoza, a buyer for Red Hat Produce Co. of Austin, Colo., whose trucks are a common site in the Roaring Fork Valley.

He predicted prices will slowly drop, but not to last year’s levels. While products from other markets will offset loses in Florida and California, there won’t be a glut of produce.Consumers should see some relief by February or March, Espinoza and Massey agreed.”The thing about produce is prices can’t stay up because people will just quit buying it,” said Espinoza.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com