(Nov. 1) Buyers should expect an upgrade in the quality of Florida vegetables as October production problems wane and November supplies pick up.
Growers said the heat and rain that plagued early crops in the northern part of the state have been less of a hindrance in most growing areas to the south. Still, they were hoping that a forecasted cold front in the final days of October would help crops set fruit with nighttime temperatures in the 60s.
Heading into the first two weeks of November, growers said spotty bacteria problems and relatively small sizing on some items should clear, and Thanksgiving shipments should exhibit good quality.
Temperatures averaged 6 degrees to 8 degrees above normal during the north Florida growing season around Quincy, said Joseph Esformes, chief executive officer of Palmetto, Fla.-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd.
That, coupled with excessive humidity, made the north Florida tomato crops extremely sensitive and the whole deal a little rocky, he said.
“But in Palmetto-Ruskin, the quality will be fine, I think. The yields will be normal for a fall crop.”
While that was likely, growers said, the quality of early production out of Palmetto-Ruskin — the backbone of the fall deal in the west central part of the state — was hit-and-miss on light volume in late October. Some houses were getting a packout rate of as little as 14 cartons from a field bin of tomatoes. Bins hold the equivalent of 40 cartons, and a normal packout rate is 30 or more cartons.
“The first planting is a little rough,” Bill Butler, sales manager for Ruskin-based Ruskin Vegetable Corp., said in late October. “The yield is down, and the size is down. But the second planting will be better. If the weather will leave us alone, every day will be a little better than the previous day.”
The tomato market in late October, growers said, was $11-12 for 5x6s, $10-11 for 6x6s and $9-10 for 6x7s.
Last season, the market fell from a late October high of near $10 on weekly shipments of less than 200,000 cartons to less than $6 on weekly shipments of 2.7 million cartons by early December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tomato plantings in Florida this fall will total 15,500 acres, according to the Orlando-based Florida Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s a 10.7% increase over last fall’s 14,000 acres and a 16.5% increase of the 13,300 harvested in the fall of 2000.
Chuck Weisinger, president of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., said Florida tomatoes should hit good volume by mid-November.
“I think the early blight and other weather-related problems will be cleared up soon,” Weisinger said in late October. “I think we’ll see a true Florida fall crop. They’re just grazing into these crops, and once they get into the second and third hands it’ll be more appealing to buyers.”
David Neill, president of Fort Pierce, Fla.-based Neill’s Farm and Big Red Tomato Packers, agreed that the tomato deal will get progressively better as the temperatures fall seasonally. But at his farm on the east coast of Florida, at any rate, early production has been good.
“My crops look good, and we’ve had good size,” Neill said. “We’ve been getting 85% to 90% five-by-sixes.”
In Plant City, meanwhile, the grape tomato crop at Ag-Mart Produce Inc. has been unaffected by the heat and rain of the growing season, said Robert Meade, sales manager.
“We see good quality,” Meade said. “For the next month or so, I don’t see anything affecting it.”
Some of the state’s premier bell pepper producers were looking for a break from the heat in late October.
“The crops are coming along real well, but it’s too hot,” said Frank Pero, vice president of Delray Beach, Fla.-based Pero Packing & Sales Inc. “It needs to cool off. Until it cools down, we won’t see the real jumbo, jumbo pepper.”
Pero said about 70% of his production normally runs to the jumbo size, but in the early going this fall he has only got about 40% to 50% jumbos. He said he looked for a break in the weather and a boost in production by the first week of November.
Theo Rumble, president of Fresh Start Produce Sales Inc., the Delray Beach-based sales agent for Thomas Produce Co., Boca Raton, Fla., said his firm is off to a better start than last year. He said the sizing and yields were down on the first Florida pepper, but quality was very good.
The market was better than a year ago. Growers said 1 1/9-bushel cartons of green bell pepper were selling at $14.85 for extra-large sizes in late October. By early December last season, prices were $10-10.85 for jumbo, $8-8.85 for extra-large, $6-6.85 for large and $5-6.85 for medium, according to the USDA.
Fall bell pepper plantings in Florida will total 4,900 acres, according to the statistics service. That compares to 4,500 acres last season and 7,000 acres in the fall of 2000.
The sizing of Florida’s early bell pepper was off because the crowns got blown off and the plants then set a lot of limb fruit, Rumble said. “It just doesn’t get very big, but that’s a common occurrence this early in the deal.”
Heat was affecting cucumbers until late October, as well.
“On the front end, the cucumbers don’t color up as well as you’d like,” said Craig Sovine, salesman for Goodson Farms Inc., Balm, Fla. “But what we’re coming into now, the color is much better and it will continue to get much better.”
Although it may have caused some headaches with bacteria in some parts of the state, Florida’s heavy summer rains will help growers in the long run, Sovine said.
“The weather we had this summer has been very beneficial in bringing up the water table,” he said. “It’s going to be very good quality this year.”
Bushel cartons of cucumbers were going for $16.85 in late October. By early December last year, f.o.b.s ranged from $8-8.35 for medium to $5-5.35 for small and as little as $4 for fair quality, according to the USDA.
Fall cucumber plantings stand at 4,000 acres, according to the statistics service. That’s up from 3,500 acres last fall but down from the 4,700 harvested acres in fall 2000.
In the central and southern parts of the state, vegetable crops in general look to be in good shape, growers said, though some planting schedules may have been disrupted because of rains.
“Right now we’re very happy with the stage everything is in,” said Roy Lee Smith, a partner in Magnolia Packing Inc., Americus, Ga., which operates a packinghouse near LaBelle, Fla. “We dodged a lot of the heavy rains. We’ve been fortunate.”
Smith said his firm would begin picking snap beans first in late October, and within a week to 10 days would be harvesting and packing a half dozen commodities. That would overlap only slightly with the tail end of the Georgia vegetable deal, he said.
Robert Wilson, president of Wilson & Son Sales Inc., Plant City, Fla., said the growing season has been great.
“It’s about like the plan,” he said.
Beans, Wilson said, should be in ample supply by Nov. 10 and plentiful for Thanksgiving promotions. Some growers are a little late coming on because of late planting caused by wet field conditions, he said.
F.o.b.s for Florida beans were not established by late October. By early December last season they sold at $6-6.85 for machine-picked bushel crates and $8.85 for handpicked crates.
Snap bean plantings are up sharply this fall in Florida, according to the statistics service. Growers have planted 11,000 acres for harvest by the end of the year, compared to 9,000 acres last year and 10,000 acres in fall 2000.
One crop that was already coming on strong by late October in Florida was squash, Wilson said. Between Oct. 21 and Oct. 25 the market for zucchini dropped from $16 to $8 per case, he said, noting cooler weather would slow volume through the state’s coolers and bring stability to the market.
Among the state’s other vegetable crops are radishes, leafy items and celery grown in the Belle Glade area.
Dan Mathis, Florida vegetable sales manager for Oviedo-based A. Duda & Sons Inc., said radish production started the fourth week in October and quality looked excellent.
“And the winter celery crop looks really good at this point,” Mathis said, noting that crop will begin harvest around mid-December and continue through early May.
“With the proprietary varieties we’ve developed for Florida, it’s comparable to anything out West.”