IMMOKALEE,
Fla. —  Knocked down by an extended cold spell that ravaged many of
their winter vegetables crops, Florida grower-shippers were recovering
and planning for more normal spring shipments on some items.


Supply gaps characterize early Florida spring vegetables deal

Doug Ohlemeier

Workers pack tomatoes at the DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., in early February. Buyers should expect big supply gaps of tomatoes and other Florida early spring vegetables such as bell peppers, corn and beans.


While a disastrous freeze struck growing regions throughout the state
in early to mid-January, rainy, cold and cloudy weather that has
gripped the state since hasn’t helped their crops grow.

The
freezing weather, which struck Jan. 3-12, created large winter and
early spring supply gaps for tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn and bell
peppers.  

Though Pacific Collier Fresh Co. thought it would
return to normal pickings of its bell peppers and squash by mid-March,
the colder weather has pushing pickings back to later in the month.

“There
is no volume here,” Jim Monteith, sales manager, said in late February.
“These 40-degree nights are definitely slowing things down. It’s not
looking too promising for that mid-March slot.”

Adam Lytch,
operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., said
temperatures during the freeze broke all kinds of records and said that
was the coldest 13-days south Florida had experienced since the 1940s.

“And we have not had any good growing weather since then,” he said in late February. “We have had cool, cloudy and rainy days.

Big supply gaps
Grower-shippers
say volume of many items such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans
and sweet corn was but a fraction of what it should have been in
February and buyers had to scramble to source product from other
regions after large shipping gaps developed.

The continuous
nights of freezing temperatures in January destroyed nearly all of the
state’s winter beans and corn grown in Belle Glade and Homestead, and
wiped out most of the state’s winter mature green tomatoes that are
grown primarily in Immokalee.

In late February, Brett Bergmann,
co-owner of Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee, said what little corn growers
had was commanding higher than normal prices.

He quoted percentage or non-fancy corn selling for up to $25 a crate.

“All
this winter corn has been non-fancy merchandise so far,” Bergmann said
Feb. 18. “There hasn’t been any fancy sweet corn. Corn is worth a lot
of money now and will be worth money until we get more supplies or when
demand falls off.”

Low tomato volume
Jon Esformes,
chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto,
Fla., in late February said buyers should expect large tomato supply
gaps to continue.

“To my knowledge, there will be no significant
amount of tomatoes out of Florida for the balance of winter and in
early spring,” he said. “I don’t see supplies having an opportunity to
return to normal levels until sometime in late April. And that will be
dependent upon what the weather is like before then.”

Brian
Rayfield, vice president of sales and marketing for J&J Produce
Inc., Loxahatchee, said buyers should look for normal volume to begin
soon.

“By mid-March, we will hopefully see some items back on
track, particularly beans, squash and corn, which are faster-growing
items,” he said.

He said he expected most items such as squash, beans and corn should return to pickings by mid-March.

Easter promotions to be okay
Grower-shippers say the state should have ample production for Easter promotions.

“We
are gearing up to have a good season of production for the Easter
holiday period,” said Fred Moore, a salesman for Five Bros. Produce
Inc., Homestead. “We are eager to get into some promotions and expect
to be in full production for that time on all items.”

Easter this year falls on April 4.

Grower-shippers say the state should have ample production for Easter promotions.

“We
are gearing up to have a good season of production for the Easter
holiday period,” said Fred Moore, a salesman for Five Bros. Produce
Inc., Homestead. “We are eager to get into some promotions and expect
to be in full production for that time on all items.”

Easter this year falls on April 4.

Jason
Hollinger, director of procurement for Four Seasons Produce Inc.,
Ephrata, Pa., said the northeastern distributor has been closely
watching the Florida situation and has its merchandisers advising its
retail customers.

“We are trying to leverage our partnerships
out of Mexico which doesn’t have quite the reputation of quality, but
it is coming out well,” he said in mid-February. “We have our
merchandising teams doing some resets to make sure our shippers are
supplying the right quality and are trying to keep people informed of
how the situation will be tight all through March.”

Meanwhile,
the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,
Tallahassee, has been aggressively promoting the state’s produce during
the winter and plans to rev-up its spring campaigns.

“This
freeze put a damper on things but growers are starting to turn around,”
Dan Sleep, an agency senior analyst, said in mid-February. “The spring
promotions should be as enormous as they have been in the past.”