ORLANDO, FLA. -- Lettuce be realistic: People wouldn't pay $1.49 for a head of plain old iceberg in the supermarket, would they?
The pale green, all-but-tasteless staple of the tossed salad rivaling the price of beef? It's true. Growers and shippers say that short supplies are to blame and that record prices could last at least another month.
Farmers in California, where 80 percent to 90 percent of the nation's head lettuce is grown, have been plowing crops under in recent weeks because of a tiny insect that descended on the fields in Biblical proportions and left them in ruin. Florida farmers, as a result, are reaping a windfall.
Farmers who normally get $4 to $5 for a 24-head carton of iceberg lettuce this time of year were getting $16.65 last week. About three weeks ago, before the South Florida crop was ready to be harvested, prices peaked at an astonishing $28 a carton, said Gary Norman, South Bay sales manager.
The sweet potato whitefly -- which usually prefers sweet potatoes -- infested California's Imperial Valley lettuce crop during the fall, and by early December the statewide harvest was running 50 percent below normal. The tiny flies can carry a virus that causes the lettuce to turn yellow and leathery.
A freakish winter storm that slammed into California in the middle of last week damaged lettuce crops even more; the extent of the storm damage is still being evaluated. Arizona lettuce farmers have had similar insect and weather problems.
What that means for Florida farmers, unaffected by the blight and cold, is record profit for all kinds of lettuce and leafy substitutes -- romaine, bibb, escarole and endive.
Florida grows about 3.5 million cartons of iceberg lettuce annually, most of it by South Bay Growers.
California has a much larger warm-weather growing region than Florida and produces lettuce year-round.
The long-term outlook for lettuce production is uncertain. Scientists are worried that the sweet potato whitefly will be a recurring problem. California scientists are looking for natural controls, because the insect has grown tolerant of pesticides used in the past, leading to the recent population explosion.
The development of whitefly-resistant varieties of lettuce probably will be the best answer, said Keith Mayberry, vegetable specialist with the University of California's crop extension service. "The levels of whitefly population we've been seeing, there's nothing that could control them," Mayberry said.
Cooler weather in recent weeks has reduced the fly populations in California, and lettuce plantings scheduled to be harvested in late winter and the spring are expected to be unaffected.