Market gardener Kenny Thorn stands in a waterlogged part of Appleby Fresh on the Waimea Plains last week. Photo: Simon Bloomberg.

Rain comes down, vege prices go up

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Vegetable prices keep going up as the rain keeps coming down and wiping out vast tracts of plants on market gardens around a water-logged Tasman district.

Lettuce prices at supermarkets and vegetable stores reached $4.90 last week after the second tropical cyclone and third downpour in a month hit the region. Spinach and silverbeet prices are also high after root rot wiped out large sections of crops during, what is already, one of the wettest autumns on record.

“It’s been hard going,” Appleby Fresh market gardener Mark O’Connor says. “We get the rain and nothing dries out before we get the next lot.

“We have one great big pond that’s about an acre of water. The plants get wet feet and die off – it’s killed all the spinach.”

MetService records show that last week’s 44mm downpour was preceded by Cyclone Donna’s 62mm and Cyclone Cook’s 108mm. There were also two big falls over 30mm when large low pressure systems came in from the Tasman Sea on January 22 and March 12 – it was the fifth wettest March-April since records started in 1941 with 283mm of rain.

Mark says the latest deluge was “probably the worst rain we’ve had of the three lots”.

“The cyclone (Donna) wasn’t too bad, and the next was okay, but last Thursday was quite heavy and that did a bit of damage because everything was already so wet. It had a huge affect on the spinach and baby-leafed crops – it doesn’t take them long to die off but if you leave water around for two days, nothing gets away with that.”

Appleby Fresh employs about 80 staff.

Although fungal disease is a problem, Waimea Plains market gardener Rob Conning says one of the biggest impacts of the rain is that it “holds us up at planting”.

Some areas are also “too wet to get into to cut plants”.

“We are already three weeks late on planting the onions. It’s so wet we can’t get onto the ground – I haven’t seen it this wet for years,” Rob says.

Rob, who employs 35 staff, says the wet autumn “follows on from a cold summer” which also affected production.

“The summer was very poor. The melons were only average and the zucchinis were well down on last year.”

However, Mark says Nelson market gardens are not as badly affected as Auckland and Horowhenua which “had a fair hammering” from the rain.

“That’s the game we are in. It’s frustrating but you can’t do anything about it,” he says.

Raeward Fresh Richmond owner Justin Blackler says there is a shortage of some vegetables and they are selling at the higher end of the price scale but the good news is prices in Nelson are still low compared to many other centres.

“When you grow crops outdoors, weather will always play a part and sometimes it’s for the good, with flushes, and sometimes not so good, so it is all swings and roundabouts. At the moment there are some prices that are pretty firm but there are still vegetables that are relatively cheap for this time of year.

“Fragile brassicas, like lettuce, are a little pricey at the moment but hardier crops like cabbages are great value.”

Justin says the majority of his produce is grown in Nelson, although the shortage in Auckland does have a flow-on price effect because “growers have the option to fill the shortfall in other regions and essentially prices are driven by supply and demand.”

Although the shortage is pushing prices up, Mark says vegetables are still a great value food item.

“I find it a bit frustrating because vegetables are always great value for money. People are happy to pay $5 for a cup of coffee and yet they complain about a $4 cauliflower that feeds the whole family.”

MetService meteorologist Tom Adams says the weather is expected to keep drying out “until at least the middle of this week but, on the whole, the rest of May is looking wetter than average”.