No need to hoard and freeze kale. Rumors of shortages were vastly exaggerated.
In case you missed it, there was a lot of buzz in early to mid-August about looming shortages in the tough, seemingly ubiquitous leafy green that has reigned as a darling of foodies for the past couple of years.
But grocers and growers have tamped down the apparently unfounded rumors that some seed shortfall would leave produce bins bereft of the coveted curly greens rich in vitamins A, C and K. “I wonder where these things come from — we’re one of the largest growers and shippers of kale and we just don’t see it,” said Ernst Van Eeghen, vice president for marketing and product development at Church Bros. Produce in Salinas, Calif.
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But there are concerns for some other highly coveted foods.
With today’s tastes running to chia and the so-called ancient grains, like amaranth, flax and quinoa, there are concerns about some shortages. “Demand is the driver there,” said Errol Schweizer, senior global grocery coordinator at Whole Foods, often the first place food fads take off. “We’re not going to run out, but we may see some price increase in quinoa.”
Ernie New has been growing quinoa in southern Colorado for the past 30 years, a business sustained until recently by health-food devotees, chefs in small restaurants and those with gluten intolerance. Now, everyone wants it.
New blames the United Nations, which named 2013 the Year of Quinoa. After that, he began getting calls from Japan, Australia and South Korea, where one company wanted him to ship a container load of the grain to Inchon, the port near Seoul, once a month.
“Somebody told General Mills, I think it was, about us, and they called looking to buy some of our crop because they were looking to increase protein in their cereal,” New said. “They only wanted 29 million pounds — I just kind of chuckled.”
Quinoa, he and Schweizer said, is a tough, but notoriously finicky plant, refusing to grow outside mountain highlands, requiring plenty of nitrogen in the soil and not too much, but not too little, water. A strong wind can reduce its growth, and it does not compete well with weeds. “I got a call from someone in Kansas earlier this year who wanted to buy seed to grow it there,” New said. “You know how hot it gets there in the summer? I wouldn’t sell him any — it would have been dishonest.”
Chia is similarly finicky, and, like quinoa, it is in high demand. “There have been a lot of new entrants in the space, and some have found it tough to maintain supply,” said John Foss, chief executive of The Chia Co, based in Port Melbourne, Australia. “The supply chain for chia isn’t fully integrated yet.”
The Chia Co began growing chia, a seed long popular in the Andean highlands, in Australia about a decade ago and is now one of the world’s largest suppliers. Foss said the company worked with farmers to guarantee supplies to its customers.
It has enough supply to develop its own products as well, and last year introduced Chia Pods, a blend of chia seeds, coconut milk and fruit that is sold in the yogurt section of grocery stores.
Scott Owen, grocery merchandiser at PCC Natural Markets, a food cooperative with 10 stores in and around Seattle, said he had not seen severe shortages in chia.
But as chia makes its way into more and more value-added products, Owen said, getting it for bulk bins becomes more difficult. “It’s grown in only a few countries and has a relatively short harvest, and so when someone buys a huge hunk of the supply to put in a cereal or a drink, there is tight supply,” he said.
The shortage Owen and Schweizer worry most about, however, is in a much more mundane crop, almonds. California is home to the vast majority of almond cultivation, and the drought there, as well as colony collapse among the bees that pollinate almond trees, is reducing supplies at a time when demand is soaring around the world.
“I think we’re going to need to reconsider how we retail almonds because the prices are just not sustainable anymore,” Schweizer said. “Using them in almond butter, for instance, when we could be promoting peanut butter instead.”
Whole Foods has been pushing more varieties of nondairy milks, as well, in an effort to encourage consumers to drink something other than almond milk, which had gained share from soy milk.
For instance, Schweizer said, the grocery chain’s sales of shelf-stable milk made from hemp are now almost equal to those of shelf-stable almond milk. “It’s definitely gaining ground as almond milk becomes more expensive,” he said.
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