Have you recently looked at an iceberg lettuce, down at the shops, and thought "wow, that's pretty expensive for lettuce."
That was a trick question – you probably haven't seen any lettuce at the shops recently. Or green beans. Or silverbeet. Or broccoli. We're all very familiar with the shortages at this point. Everything's more scarce – and when you do eventually find whatever it is you're looking for, it's probably a lot more expensive than it used to be. That's especially pronounced in the grocery aisles. So why is cos the new status symbol? Why is baby spinach green gold?
"With the latest dilemmas, you can bring it back to 2020, with Covid," says Shane Tesoriero, manager of Sydney-based grocer Murdoch Produce. "When we locked the country down [in March 2020], a lot of the growers had all this produce, but as a lot of overseas people went home, because of Covid, we had no one to pick the produce – that's where it started."
As a consequence of this initial picker shortage, a lot of produce was wasted in those initial months of 2020. At the same time, a nationwide shutdown of restaurants decreased demand – causing even more of that harvest to go to waste. Because of that reduced labour force, and the pandemic rollercoaster known as 2021, growers – especially those along the East Coast – planted less than they have in previous years, with the idea of a harvest with very little produce going to waste. Which brings us to this year.
"The rain – it just completely wiped out anything, any of the crops the growers started," Tesoriero says. The water – from rain, and flooding in Queensland – killed many crops. And despite open borders, we still had a pronounced workforce shortage for picking whatever had managed to grow. "Then, because the ground is so wet, the growers can't go in to plant the stuff and they've got to wait till the ground dries up – and they can't get their tractors in or their planting equipment."
That's been compounded by the abnormally cold finish to autumn and start to winter that Australia's experienced. Year-round vegetables such as lettuce take between eight to 10 weeks to grow in summer – in winter it's more like 10 to 12. This blows out wait times, and therefore supply, even for growing regions such as Victoria, that never got lashed by the worst of La Niña. Some growers are picking early to make up for this, which is why you may be seeing inferior quality vegetables, if you do spot them.
So, what is cheap? "Anything that grows from trees, because it generally hasn't been waterlogged," Tesoriero says. Most fruit is priced fairly normally right now – tree-hugging avocados are also in oversupply and are currently affordable. Cauliflowers are a good deal, too, if you can find them. On the whole though, this unique confluence of events – exacerbated by growing inflation and rising costs of living – means that a trip to the shops or the market will keep hurting the wallet for a while to come, according to Tesoriero. "I really, to be honest, cannot think of any vegetable, which I would say is cheap."
"For prices to go down, it's going to take warm weather and no rain" Tesoriero says. "It's going to take months – but who knows, Mother Nature's in charge at the moment."