Historically high green bell pepper prices — a product of devastating freezes and lingering cold weather in Florida — are finally coming down as new production kicks in, but they could stay well above average through April.

Pepper prices falling, but still high

Even the week of April 5, some prices were topping $50 per carton, higher than they’ve been in more than a decade.

Red bell pepper markets may not weaken until late May.

“As Florida comes back into production, the green bell market has come down a bit, but in the month of April there will still be high prices and tight supplies,” said Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.

Jim Monteith, sales manager for Immokalee, Fla.-based  Pacific Collier Fresh Co., said April 6 that prices were falling on a daily basis — but still had a lot of falling to do.

“Right now we’re still light in volume and trying to get back to normal,” he said. “We’re still about three weeks from normal.”

South Florida production was picking up the week of April 5, but central Florida shipments won’t likely begin until late April, Monteith said. Mexican volumes were decreasing rapidly in April, shippers said.

The price of many bell peppers had fallen from the $40s to the $20s per carton between about March 27 and April 6, but premium Florida product was still fetching $45-48, said Michael Shier, sales manager for the vegetable department of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee.

By late April, though, even those prices will likely be in the $20s, Shier said.  

Quality would likely stay in the fair-to-good range until late April, Monteith said.

“There’s a lot of stress on the plants,” he said. “They’re not producing like they should.”

Green bell prices should return to normal seasonal levels in early May, when the Coachella Valley deal in California is in full swing, Aiton said.

By the end of April, most Coachella growers should be shipping green bells, but markets may not return to normal until Bakersfield is in full swing, in the first or second week of June, said Pete Aiello, general manager of Gilroy, Calif.-based Uesugi Farms Inc.

Red bell peppers are not as plentiful in Florida, which means markets for those should stay very strong until late May, Aiton said. Reds will start shipping out of California about May 20, almost a month after the green deal starts in the Golden State.

Prices ranged widely the week of April 5, Monteith said, with jumbos and extra-larges still topping $40 early in the week, but some mediums and smalls going for half that.  

On April 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $40.35-45.85  for 1 1/9-bushel cartons of jumbo green peppers from Florida, up from $18.35-18.85 last year at the same time.

Larges were $30.35-36.85, up from $12.35-14.85. Mediums were $14.35-20.85, up from $10.35-12.85.

Markets that high aren’t good for anybody, Aiton said.

“It’s tough,” he said. “We can’t supply our customers with what we want. Even though the market’s high, we’re not happy, and our customers aren’t happy.”

Bell markets have been this high before, but not for such an extended period of time — likely about two months when all is said and done, Aiton said.

“I think it’s unprecedented,” he said.

Shier agreed.

“I’ve been doing this close to 30 years, and I’ve never seen markets this high for this long,” he said.

A bell pepper market like this one hasn’t been seen since 1989, the last time Florida was hit with such a devastating freeze, Monteith said.

Pepper volumes, quality, size profile and prices were expected to be closer to normal at Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings Super Markets Inc. grocery stores by late April or early May, said Paul Kneeland, the company’s vice president of produce and floral.

Until then, the company will continue to struggle with how to pitch bells to consumers, Kneeland said.

“We like to promote them more than what we’re doing now,” he said. “The cost is so high you get to that point where you have to make the decision whether to promote or not. Typically, we just pull them out.”

Green bell prices at Kings Super have actually matched or exceeded prices for colored bells in some cases, a very rare occurrence, Kneeland said. That’s spurring some customers who normally stick to greens to trade up to colored bell peppers, he said.