Bell peppers from Coachella Valley encounter strong markets

64562AIt has been an interesting year for Coachella Valley bell peppers so far. Drew Belk, a vegetable grower in Thermal, said: "I would say the weather has been variable.” 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.

'Unbelievable situation'

"We walked into an unbelievable situation," Belk told, 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. 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.

Publication date: Wed 3 Jun 2020