10 June 2022

Lettuce reassure you, the worst is almost over

| James Coleman
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Lettuce has been the most high profile victim of a recent veggie shortage. Photo: Jeff Wright.

Lettuces are costing more than $5 each at grocery stores and fresh fruit stalls across the ACT – and that’s cheap compared to some Australian supermarkets where they are reportedly selling for up to $12.

Relentless wet weather, COVID-19 restrictions, and high fuel prices have created a perfect storm for fruit and vegetable growers across the nation but the end is in sight.

Mic Frugtneit, from Tom’s Superfruits at the Belconnen Fresh Food Markets, said it has been the worst shortage the industry has seen.

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“There is nothing that stands out right now as cheap,” he said.

“All the markets are [comparatively] empty.”

Normally at this time of year lettuce, strawberries and melons would be pouring out of the stalls, but Mic said “rainfall after rainfall after rainfall” had messed with the farming cycle.

“The floods in Queensland, together with the colder than usual weather, has really ruined the harvest,” he said.

Mic from Tom's Superfruits

Mic from Tom’s Superfruits. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

“Like everything, fruit and vegetable prices are driven by supply and demand, which is really difficult at the moment, because there’s no supply.”

Iceberg lettuce might have taken the hardest hit, but Mic said this had flow-on implications for all the other lettuce types.

“If iceberg isn’t available and someone needs lettuce, they have to go to cos lettuce or mixed salad and then there’s a shortage of that too.”

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Even fast food giant KFC announced last week it would begin blending lettuce and cabbage in its products across stores in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, and the ACT.

“We’ve hit a bit of an iceberg and are currently experiencing some lettuce supply chain disruptions due to the impacts of the recent Queensland and NSW floods,” a statement read.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese weighed in on Sydney’s Kyle and Jackie O show, describing the substitution of lettuce for cabbage as “crazy”.

fruit and vegetables

Oh, for those days. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

“This is a crisis,” he said.

“My son loves KFC and when he hears about this he is going to be devastated. I’ll put it on the list for the Cabinet meeting today. Cabbage-gate.”

As with everything, the pandemic is also to blame.

“Because of COVID-19 and the effects of isolation requirements on the industry, farmers missed the opportunity to plant,” Mic said.

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The ban on international travel also robbed Australia of its army of fruit-pickers. Farmers were forced to pay a premium for a local workforce, jacking up production costs.

And then, of course, there’s the Russia-Ukraine crisis which is blamed for skyrocketing oil prices in the past few months. These high fuel prices have been passed along to the consumer.

The local growers aren’t much help either.

“There’s nothing that grows in Canberra at this time of year,” Mic said.

Tim and Tobie of Queen-Street Growers, Moruya. Photo: Kate Raymond.

Growers in Moruya. Photo: Kate Raymond.

At a time of inflation and rising interest rates, it’s another burden for individuals and families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Mic said the average person’s grocery spend is “going through the roof” but relief was imminent.

“The supply will come through eventually, it just takes time for things to grow,” he said.

“As the weather improves, especially in Queensland, it will turn around. When the growing catches up in a couple of weeks, there’s going to be an influx of lettuce and it will plummet in price.”

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The IMF warned this was the likely outcome of lockdowns last year:

Entirely caused by government.

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