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Romaine calm! Small producers finding ways to avoid lettuce shortage and inflation by growing locally


Grocery shoppers walking through a lettuce aisle at a Metro, Loblaws or Costco recently have noticed a distinct lack of one thing: lettuce.

Lettuce is just the latest crop which has become scarce at large chains, which have seen a number of supply issues that have increased produce prices or simply caused them to vanish.

Sylvain Charlebois at Dalhousie University's agri-food analytics lab said, the reasons is simple: scale and dependence.

"If your customer is Loblaws and you have to supply 3,000 stores along with Sobeys, you need California," said Charlebois. "California's becoming an issue. It's drying up."

Charlebois said lettuce will be back on the shelves by December but that the shortage points to the issue of depending on California for food.

Lettuce, Charlebois said, is not difficult to grow and many smaller markets and produce sellers have the product available because they are sourcing it from greenhouses or other local producers.

Montreal-based Lufa Farms, for example, sells lettuce on its online marketplace and has over a dozen types of lettuce available from between $3.35 to $5.75 per 100 to 185 grams.

Head purchaser Frederic Leblond said the company has not had to shrink portions or increase prices dramatically because the produce is grown in greenhouses locally.

"For sure there is some inflation, but we can find some ways to control the inflation," he said. "The food we usually sell doesn't travel a lot, and we can save a lot of travel costs."

In addition, Leblond said 90 per cent of their products come from local greenhouses, and the other 10 per cent is sourced from thoroughly vetted suppliers.

"We don't depend on people based in California," he said. "We have some farmers in Montreal, and we have some good discussions with them about offer and demand, and we don't want to increase and they don't want to increase their prices."

Statistics Canada released a report in October showing that supply chain disruptions, labour shortages, changes in purchasing patterns and other factors have contributed to Canadians spending more and more on groceries. Fresh vegetables have increased around 11 per cent in the past year, according to Stats Can.

Charlebois added that those with space can easily start growing lettuce as it's not a demanding crop to produce. Those without space or a green thumb, however, may just need to change their shopping habits.

"If you have time, I would look around," he said. "In Montreal, I know a few produce stores, and that's all they do; they sell produce. Those places, you'd be surprised as there are some really good deals."

The lettuce shortage, Charlebois, said, will likely end in December as the supply shifts to Arizona, which had a decent yield this year.

"Most importantly, it's not going to last; it's temporary," he said. "It's going to get back to normal and prices are going to drop."

Lufa Farms also recently got into the meal kit game, creating another option for those looking to stay local and reduce food costs and waste.

"It's very customizable," said Lufa Farms nutritionist Chloe Garceau. "Our recipes are accessible to everyone, and they range from $5 to about 17."

Those meal kits also avoid extra waste by not pre-packing or pre-portioning ingredients that are sourced locally.

Charlebois said that those businesses that require large-scale supply, however, cannot continue to depend on California.

"The California model is not sustainable," he said. "We're going to have to figure something else out. It's only gonna get worse." Top Stories

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