By Hayley Boriss and Henrich Brunke, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California.
Revised April 2012 by Lisa Jore, Associate Program Director, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota.
Lettuce, believed to be one of the first vegetables brought to the new world by explorer Christopher Columbus, has been grown in the United States since colonial times (California Leafy Greens Research Program). In the early 1900s, the ice shipping industry developed in the western states, expanding the range and popularity of lettuce. Today, in terms of production value, head lettuce is one of the three largest vegetable crops in the United States, surpasssed only by onions (NASS 2013). More than 90 percent of U.S. lettuce production is located in California and Arizona. The main types include head (iceberg, butterhead, Boston and Bibb), romaine and various leaf varieties.
A small number of firms are responsible for growing, processing and transporting lettuce to retail outlets. Consumer demand for convenience and product diversity, together with technological advances in such areas as packaging films, have spurred the U.S. lettuce industry. Today, almost all head lettuce is field packed for bulk sale or for transport to a salad processing plant. Estimates suggest that about one fourth of all iceberg lettuce is now destined for processing into packaged salads (ERS 2006).
While head (iceberg) lettuce is still the dominant salad green, its consumption decreased slightly from 21 pounds per capita in 2005 to 17 pounds in 2009. Consumption of fresh-market romaine and leaf lettuce increased from 10.6 pounds per capita in 2005 to 11 pounds in 2009. The growing popularity of ready-to-eat packaged salad greens, introduced in the late 1980s, has contributed to the dramatic growth in the amount of romaine, leaf lettuce and spinach available for consumption in the United States. (Amber Waves 2007). Some of the increased popularity of romaine lettuce is due in part to the increased popularity of the Caesar salad. Leaf lettuce consumption has risen largely due to the popularity of salad bars, while both have benefited from the introduction of packaged salads.
Total acreage of lettuce planted in 2012 was 267,100 acres. U.S. production that year totaled more than 85.4 million cwt and was valued at nearly $1.9 billion. Head lettuce was 43 percent of the value, and the remaining 57 percent was composed of leaf and romaine lettuce types. California and Arizona account for about 98 percent of commercial lettuce production. (NASS 2013)
Lettuce production occurs year-round throughout the United States, through a sequence of production in Arizona and California, as well as commercial greenhouse hydroponic facilities. The majority of production from April through October occurs in the Salinas Valley of California, while production from November through March occurs in Yuma, Arizona, and California’s Imperial Valley (ERS 2006).
The United States is the second largest lettuce-producing country behind China, which continues to dominate world production.
U.S. lettuce prices are historically variable between seasons and are significantly affected by changes in supply. The value of the lettuce crop in 2010 was 19 percent of the total value for all fresh vegetable crops. The average monthly retail price of iceberg lettuce was 88 cents per pound in 2010.
The United States remains a leading lettuce exporter, second behind Spain. U.S. exports of all types of lettuce was 327,268 metric tons (MT) in 2010 valued at $439.3 million (FAS 2011). The United States is a net exporter of lettuce. By far the biggest share of U.S. lettuce exports are shipped to Canada, Taiwan and Mexico. Canada has been the leading recipient of U.S. lettuce since at least 1989 and receives approximately 86 percent of the total U.S. lettuce exports (FAS 2011).
In 2010 the United States imported 146,818 MT of all types of lettuce valued at $134,688 million, with more romaine and leaf lettuce being imported than head lettuce (FAS 2011). Canada and Mexico have been the leading sources of lettuce entering the United States. However, the two countries traded positions as the top country exporting to the United States until 2002, when Mexico became the leading supplier. Much of this increase in imports from Mexico is a consequence of increased romaine and leaf lettuce imports.
Amber Waves, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA, 2007.
California Leafy Greens Research Program.
Statistical Database-Agriculture, FAOSTAT, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), United Nations.
Tables for Fresh Vegetables, ERS, USDA.
U.S. per capita food availability, ERS, USDA.
Vegetables and Melons Outlook, ERS, USDA.
Created October 2005 and updated April 2012.