Courtesy Val Verde Vegetable Co. Inc.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.