While you may imagine spring as a sunny time of abundance in the produce business, this transition from winter to summer crops is actually one of the most difficult times to be sourcing produce, even here in California. One of the biggest challenges in the spring is what’s known as “gapping.” Simply put, the goal of any farmer is to provide a continuous supply of their produce and gapping is when they can’t do this. Put another way, year round produce sourcing is effectively a relay race between growers up and down our state, and gapping is the equivalent of someone dropping the baton. This is not anyone’s fault as much as it is just an unfortunate product of tough circumstances. This year has been particularly difficult because of the heavy rains, so we want to explore gapping and how it impacts your Imperfect box.
What causes gapping?
- The unpredictability of the seasons: Farming is a ultimately a series of educated guesses about what Mother nature is going to do. Farmers have to assess temperature, weather, water, and sun daily and figure out they will all intersect to help or hurt the health of their fields. Things never go as planned. An unexpected cold snap might kill seedlings while a prolonged heatwave might push up the harvest and flood the market early. Rains create muddy fields which can delay the harvest, while hail can damage an orchard and reduce yields.
- Consumer demand: When fruit or veggie gets “food famous,” it can drive up prices and drive down the supply. With avocados, hyper-successful marketing has meant that demand has been beating the trees for years now. With avocados, events like the superbowl and Cinco de Mayo have real impacts on avocado prices, especially when coupled with the avocados growing fame outside of California and abroad. Given that it takes years for a newly planted tree to start fruiting, it may take the avocado market a while to catch up to the popularity of California’s favorite green fruit. Gapping might be a reality for years to come.
- Transportation Issues: Produce wholesalers often try to get around gapping by sourcing from out of state or out of the country, but when transportation prices are high, this in turn drives up the price of produce. For example, this past winter, labor disputes and high gas prices in Mexico spiked the price of avocados and meant we couldn’t put them in boxes for months.
What are the effects of gapping?
- Seasons are delayed: Every day that a farmer can’t get into the field to plant sets their harvest back by a day, so a heavy storm can set back the start of a produce from a few days to a few weeks. Weather impacts entire growing regions, not just individual farms, so when we say that broccoli season is delayed, we’re talking about all of the Salinas valley being flooded and behind schedule. Row crops like Broccoli and kale are especially prone to gapping and delays as severe weather impacts the harvest immediately and intensely.
- Prices get astronomically high. We love providing customers with healthy greens like Romaine lettuce. For the record, a case of romaine lettuce hearts has a wholesale price of around $12. Due to the heavy rains this year, however, farmers in Santa Maria couldn’t plant their romaine crops on time, which ended up driving the price up to $52 dollars a case! This five-fold increase meant that we had to stop buying romaine lettuce until the harvest could catch up with the demand. Just like with the avocados we had to stop sourcing a beloved piece of produce because of a gap.
What happens after the gap?
- There’s a light at the end of the tunnel! All gaps end eventually as the farms catch up with demand, get back on schedule, and the produce market breathes a collective sigh of relief.
- In terms of your Imperfect box, you can look forward to delicious cherries starting in late April and early May. You can expect to see apricots starting in mid to late May. Following the apricots triumphant arrival you can look forward to other stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, and finally plums as summer starts to kick in.
- Once you understand the challenges presented by gapping, it makes you appreciate every piece of produce just a little more. It’s a real miracle that each apple, squash, and cucumber can make it to your doorstep in the first place! So next time you take a bite of a crisp piece of Romaine or a sweet cherry, think about what it had to go through to get to your table, and savor every last bite!