LOS ANGELES For folks who make a living off lemons, sweetening up this sour news is going to be costly.
The price of lemons has soared recently, thanks to the triple whammy of a crop-wrecking frost in California last year, problems with overseas harvests this year and the nation's ongoing struggle with fuel costs.
It means businesses and consumers are paying significantly more over 2007 for lemons and products made from them.
"Out of nowhere, I saw prices double," says Elias Carofilis, owner of The Lemonade Company, based in San Antonio, Texas. "So now, my Original Lemonade retails at $4. In July '07 they were going for about $2.50."
It's yet another case of having to pass on the cost. Carofilis, who sells his drinks at roadside stands, fairs and other events, said a box of lemons that cost him $20 to $30 last year now runs as much as $50.
Even big-name chefs are taking note of the increase. Though lemons are just a small fraction of food costs at New York's high-profile restaurant Chanterelle, ingredient prices do cut into the bottom line, says chef and owner David Waltuck.
"We've noticed a price increase on many of the ingredients we use on a daily basis, including lemons," he says. "There is no substitution for lemons, so we pay the higher price. We don't really have a choice."
The problem started in January 2007, when California's Ventura County was hit hard by a freeze. Ventura County accounts for more than two-thirds of the state's lemon crop, and California produces nearly all of the nation's lemons.
As a result, this year's lemon harvest is expected to yield about 703,000 tons, a 12 percent dip from last year, according to government data. California's crop will be down 8 percent, making it the smallest harvest in nearly a decade.
Lemon trees are unusual; they bear two or three crops at once blooms, small unripe fruit and maturing fruit. That's why last year's frost was so devastating, says Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a collective of growers.
"There will be supplements from other areas in California that are nearing harvest, but not enough," he says.
That scarcity is prompting higher market prices, but they aren't translating into profits for growers, who still face steep labor and transportation costs.
And imports aren't likely to ease the pressure. Though the U.S. does import lemons from Chile, Spain and Mexico, it's a small fraction of the demand, says Susan Pollack, an economist and lemon expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While imports have increased to help, it's not enough. Spain has had problems with pests and drought, and for aesthetic reasons Mexican lemons generally are not sold to consumers, Nelson says.
"That trend may change," says Pollack. "Up until a few years ago, most of Mexico's lemon production was used for processing. In recent years, however, shipments of fresh lemons to the U.S. have been increasing. This is likely to continue."
Meanwhile, Carofilis says he has no plans to change his lemonade recipe. "Using fresh, organic lemons is what makes customers come to us instead of picking up a can of Country Time."
And assuming no more crop disasters, relief should be on the way.
Consumers can expect to see lemon production rise and prices fall by February or March, says Nelsen.
"Historically, prices go up in fall and winter when the trees in Ventura County are through producing," he says. "But by February there's usually a sufficient supply."