Record lime prices should come down as warmer weather arrives in Mexican growing areas in the second half of March, but prices could remain as much as $25 per box above average into May.

Meanwhile, in mid-March, high prices were keeping limes out of some restaurants.

Prices for some 40-pound boxes of Mexican limes hit $80 the week of March 17, according to a March 19 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s up from highs for this time of year ranging from $22 to $40 over the past four years.

Prices at some terminal markets March 20 were even higher, topping $90 per box.

“I’ve never seen prices like this, especially for this long,” said Cliff Wiebusch, sales manager for McAllen, Texas-based Val Verde Vegetable Co. Inc.

Bret Erickson, president and chief executive officer of the Mission-based Texas International Produce Association, also said that importers he’s talked to have never seen anything like the current market conditions.

“To meet U.S. demand, they need to ship about 350 loads per week, and there have been weeks where it’s as low as 220 loads,” Erickson said.

In addition, the typical seasonal decline in retailers’ orders has not happened this March, he said.

In the week ending March 15, the U.S. imported about 95.7 million pounds of limes, down from 154.6 million pounds in the same week the year before. The March 15 total also was down from the 120.3 million pounds shipped the previous week.

All lime imports reported March 18 by the USDA came through Texas.

For the season, though, lime imports are up. About 4.72 billion pounds had shipped through March 15, up from 4.7 billion pounds at the same time last season.

Though volumes will begin ramping back up as winter yields to spring, that’s no guarantee prices will return to seasonal norms, said Jerry Garcia Jr., a salesman for Pharr, Texas-based London Fruit Inc., which has seen some of its weekly volumes cut in half because of the shortage.

“Will it be a $10 market, or $25, or not below $30?” Garcia said. “We could feel the effects through summer.”

Markets that are typically in the $5-per-box range in May could be closer to $20 or $30 this year, Erickson said.

Erickson hadn’t heard any confirmation of a report that some Mexican growers were withholding shipments to raise prices. In fact, he said, the opposite is true: growers are picking smaller fruit to take advantage of the high prices.

Garcia agreed. Growers were strip-picking trees, not waiting for fruit to size, he said. As a result, prices for the biggest limes could actually go even higher before they start to fall back this spring.

In the middle of the month, London Fruit’s grower partners were reporting warmer weather, which should get production back on track.

The big volume drops aren’t related to citrus greening, Wiebusch said.

The specter of greening raised its head in Mexico in June, when a live Asian citrus psyllid was found on a shipment of Mexican limes entering the U.S. — the first-ever find by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in a commercial shipment.

But Wiebusch said he hadn’t heard of that as a reason for the severely lower volumes of limes from Mexico’s Veracruz region.

In mid-March Val Verde was sourcing mainly from Veracruz, with some fruit coming in from Oaxaca.

Instead, Wiebusch said, Mother Nature is to blame.

“They had unseasonable rains, at the time when they were blooming,” he said. “They lost some of their blooms. Then it was unseasonably cold.”

By mid-March, just as it was warming up in the U.S., Veracruz also was enjoying more seasonably normal temperatures, which should mean an uptick in lime production in late March or early April.

“To the best of my knowledge, supplies will remain pretty scarce through the end of the month,” he said. “Their temperatures are starting to get back into the 60s and 70s.”

Foodservice affected

Retailers still have limes in their produce departments, but at current prices, they’re not selling as much as usual, Wiebusch said.

On-ad retail prices in the week ending March 14 averaged 44 cents per lime, up from 33 cents last year at the same time, according to the USDA’s National Fruit & Vegetable Retail Report.

Foodservice, however, is another story.

“I’ve noticed some of the Mexican restaurants I go to are using lemons instead of limes,” he said.

Orders for limes have been about normal for Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, and the company has been able to fill them, said Michelle Davidson, product manager.

“Markon has a good shipper base we’ve built up, and we’re getting covered on 100% of orders,” she said.

What’s helping, Davidson said, is that customers have been flexible on size, willing to take whatever sized fruit Markon can find on a given day.

 In a glass of tea or another beverage, restaurants that typically use limes “99% of the time” are now using lemons instead, Wiebusch said.

Garcia also has seen drop in foodservice use of limes.

“A few have stopped putting limes on their menus altogether,” he said.

Still, Wiebusch said, it’s a mixed bag. Some foodservice channels will use limes no matter what.

“The guy at the bar who wants a lime in his drink doesn’t care how much it costs,” he said. “And the restaurant that puts lime on its trout almondine is still going to do it. You’d think at these prices they wouldn’t, but they keep buying.”

Prices for 40-pound boxes March 20 at the Hunts Point terminal market in New York ranged from $80 to $95.