Absent a third straight year of freezes in either Florida, Arizona or west Mexico, winter fresh vegetable prices will drop 25% or more, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But between idea and reality, shadows sometimes fall.

Mexico might have seemed the surest bet of the three until February’s twice-in-a-century freeze decimated vegetable crops.

The west Mexico vegetable, tomato and melon deal is already started. Peak season in Nogales, Ariz., starts about Jan. 15.

“We hope we go through this without too much distraction from Mother Nature,” said Jim Cathey, general manager of Nogales-based Del Campo Supreme.

“But somebody, we or Florida, probably needs some or we won’t have a good market.”

However reassuring statistics are about mild Mexico weather, recent experience to the contrary has prompted caution.

“Last year was on a record-breaking pace before the freeze hit in February,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales.

“Some growers lost a lot of money and need to retrench financially. We may not be on that same record-breaking pace, but in general I expect it will grow.”

In Sinaloa, another consequence is playing itself out. Water shortages affect the region, said Jon Esformes, operating partner of Nogales-based Pacific Tomato Growers.

“A lot of replanting took place after that devastating freeze,” Esformes said.

“The authorities released a lot of water to feed those crops. There was an understanding that depending on what summer rains were like, there might not be sufficient water for all the acreage people want to plant. (But) the drought in the Southwest U.S. certainly extends into Mexico.”

“We’re still unsure if water’s going to be distributed to all the growers in time to plant everything they need to,” Jorge Quintero Jr., partner in Rio Rico, Ariz.-based Grower Alliance LLC, said Oct. 25.

“Across the board, it might decrease everything planned for the Culiacan area.”

Even so, Grower Alliance has increased its acreage on items like green beans, honeydews, watermelons, squash and cucumbers. The company expects a volume bump to 2.8 million packages this winter, an increase of about half a million.

Most expect minimal effects on large growing operations. Small farmers may be scrambling.

“We’re aware the reservoir is down but we don’t think it’s going to affect us personally that much,” said Chuck Ciruli III, chief executive officer of Rio Rico-based Ciruli Bros.

“Our crops are secure. I think they’ll protect the vegetable and tomato crops with the allotted water.”

“I see decent volume coming out of Mexico regardless,” said Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Co., Nogales.

“A lot of our products are on drip, which conserves quite a bit of water.”

Al Harrison Co. programs, such as watermelons, should transition from northern to southern Mexico by Jan. 1, he said.

“I’ve heard a lot of people who had water allocations and lost a part of it are continuing to grow export items to the U.S. and cut back on their corn plantings for domestic,” Esformes said.

“I’m looking for the season to have a small start because of some of the pressures in Mexico.”

The freeze also sped up the trend toward protected agriculture — which means less volume than normal in early December, particularly on tomatoes.

“It’s cooler by design in there, and that delays the crop. So the start of production for everyone is going to be a little bit later, and the deals will be lighter at the beginning,” Cathey said.

“Last year, the guys who survived and got through with decent volume had product inside,” he said.

“They weren’t immune, but if you were outside you lost almost everything.”

Rene Produce, Rio Rico, reported cucumber varieties started arriving in October. The company also offers roma and round tomatoes, eggplant and red and green bell peppers from Sinaloa.

“We should have everything up and running by mid-December,” said Hurley Neer, business development manager.

Natural Flavor Produce, Rio Rico, plans to start with hot peppers from Culiacan in late November, followed by cucumber varieties and Italian squash from Obregon, Mexico, in mid-December, said Pat Leal, office manager.

Sandia Distributors, Nogales, began shipping watermelons out of Mexico Sept. 15. Sandia planned to shift from Sonora to Jalisco around Nov. 15 and remain there for the winter.

On the policy front, Jungmeyer sees an opening for Mexico in the lack of progress on immigration and labor issues in the U.S.

“Reform is not happening. There’s not a guest-worker program,” Jungmeyer said.

“That creates an opportunity for Mexican produce to take more market share.”