BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Buyers of Florida winter vegetables and tomatoes should expect smaller volumes and higher than normal prices until the state’s spring deals begin.

Many of south Florida’s packinghouses that would normally be busy running green beans, sweet corn, bell peppers, squash and tomatoes remain at a standstill, causing some prices to shoot to high levels.

Florida freeze escalates vegetable prices

Doug Ohlemeier

Freeze-damaged bell peppers south of Immokalee, Fla. Growers say buyers shouldn’t expect normal volumes of peppers, beans, corn and tomatoes until March.

On Jan. 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it expected Florida beans, peppers and tomatoes of all types to decline in movement during the next two weeks.

Statewide, vegetable supplies should be down up to 75%, said Brian Rayfield, vice president of sales and marketing for J&J Produce Inc., Loxahatchee, which grows and packs peppers and squash.

“There will be a roller coaster ride of supply and quality issues,” he said Jan. 27. “Some fields made it through better than others. There are going to be challenges for the next 60 days. It should be April 1 before things are back to normal.”

Rayfield said other growers he has talked with say they plan to stay on their original production schedules and do not plan to rush in and replant damaged acreage to avoid a spring glut.

Though the USDA on Jan. 26 said supplies were insufficient to establish a market, beans remained in the $40s for bushel cartons/crates of round green beans  since mid-January, said Gary Stafford, salesman and green bean manager for Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee.

Stafford, who quoted $45 on Jan. 27, said he expects prices to remain higher than normal until spring production begins by late March.

“We are waiting to grow out a new crop,” he said. “Anything that was in the ground received a lot of damage while 90% of planted acreage above the ground received mild to severe damage.  We have been salvaging during the last few weeks on fields that had mild to severe damage.”

Stafford said he expects a gap through mid-February when the region resumes with light production. Normal production shouldn’t start until mid-March, he said.

Garrett Griffin, salesman for S..M. Jones & Co. Inc., Belle Glade, said he wouldn’t have any corn to pack until March.

The freeze destroyed about 75% of S. M. Jones grower-owners’ Homestead crop, and Griffin said he expected irregular volume from Homestead beginning in March.

“The packing sheds are running sporadically,” he said Jan. 27. “It’s like an unwanted monthlong vacation.”

Belle Glade normally begins spring production in late March. The cold didn’t destroy the crops that were in the ground or were beginning to emerge, Griffin said.

To supply his customers, Griffin said he is exploring sourcing Mexican-grown corn.

On Jan. 27, Griffin quoted $24.95 for wirebound crates of 4-4 1/2 dozen white, yellow and bicolor corn.

Florida won’t be producing any significant volume of tomatoes until early to mid-March, said Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Immokalee-based Lipman Family Cos., which grows and packs tomatoes and vegetables through Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. and Custom Pak.

Odell said he expects Immokalee-area growers to pick a few surviving tomatoes but there won’t be anything near normal volume until March.

“The supplies will be tight,” he said Jan. 27. “Particularly for the hard-to-get small fruit, for the foodservice operators that use a lot of the smaller sizes, the 6x6s and the 6x7s. For those using the large sizes, there will be supply out of Mexico.”

Odell said growers weren’t able to salvage as much mature greens as they had planned though some Immokalee packers in late January were running limited volumes of grape, cherry and roma tomatoes.
 
The first bloom for Immokalee’s spring mature greens crop, which normally starts in mid-March, was beginning in late January. Mature greens normally take six weeks from open bloom until harvest, Odell said.

On Jan. 27, Odell quoted $10 for 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% No. 1 or better from south Florida before handling charges.

That compares to $17.95 for 5x6s, and 6x6s and 6x7s the USDA reported on Jan 26.

After a freeze, tomato prices often decline for a couple of weeks and then firm up once salvage is complete and after shippers know how much product survives, Odell said.

Saying the cold caused extensive squash damage throughout Florida, the USDA on Jan. 26 said supplies of central and south Florida squash were insufficient to establish a market and that it didn’t expect sufficient volume to establish an f.o.b. market until mid- to late February.

For green bell peppers from south Florida, the USDA on Jan. 26 quoted 1 1/9 bushel cartons of jumbos selling for $14.35-14.85, extra large, $12.35-12.85 and $10.35-10.85 for large and mediums.

Florida’s citrus industry is awaiting official reports of damage to come in the Feb. 15 monthly USDA citrus report.

Paul Genke, director of sales and marketing for The Packers of Indian River Ltd., Fort Pierce, said growers would learn how much the freeze hurt them over the next couple of weeks.

He said the cold caused isolated damage such as weakening trees and causing a lot of leaf loss on the tops of trees but little physical damage to the trees.

“I haven’t heard anyone say they saw a lot of damage,” he said Jan. 27.