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Fall fresh-vegetable acreage expected to rise

Compared with a year earlier, fall season (primarily October through December) area for harvest of 11 selected fresh-market vegetables (excluding melons) is expected to be up 5 percent this year to 154,300 acres, according to USDA’s latest Vegetables and Melon Outlook.

Most of the acreage increase is in Florida, up 27 percent, where acreage for snap beans, sweet corn and bell peppers has recovered from reductions a year ago, likely spurred by grower losses from repeated storm damage in previous years.

Acreage in California, which accounts for about two-thirds of fall vegetable area, is expected to remain even with a year ago. Lower area is expected for most vegetables in the state (including head lettuce, tomatoes, and broccoli) but will be offset by stronger area for cauliflower and carrots (up 33 percent).

This fall, the top five fresh vegetables in terms of volume, excluding potatoes and onions, are expected to be head lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, celery and broccoli.

Head lettuce area is down 6 percent with yields expected to average below those of a year ago. Light supplies and elevated/unsettled lettuce prices was expected to ease as harvest moved to the desert southwest in November.

Given steady demand and strong prices over the first half of 2007, estimated carrot acreage reached 20,000 acres — the highest fall area since 1999. Per capita use of fresh carrots is expected to total approximately 8.8 pounds in 2007 — up slightly from 2006 but about even with the 2000-06 average.

Although carrot prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or shipping point) averaged 27.1 cents per pound during the first half of 2007 when supplies were limited by weather-reduced yields, prices have been weak the past few months, reflecting improved summer yields. With supplies expected to remain more than adequate, fresh carrot prices will likely average below last fall’s 19.7 cents per pound.

According to Market News, the weighted average nationally advertised price for a 1-pound bag of baby carrots was $1.48 in early October.

Spurred in part by lower prices last fall, fall tomato area this year is expected to drop 16 percent to 17,600 acres. Preliminary data indicate that harvested area in Florida is expected to plummet 26 percent, while acreage in California is expected to be down a more modest 7 percent.

Part of the drop in U.S tomato area likely will be offset by improved yields since there have been few weather extremes (cooler in California and little tropical storm activity in Florida) during the fall growing period.

Florida’s fall tomato area continues to be eroded by lower-cost supplies from California and Mexico and retail competition with hothouse tomatoes. Florida expects to harvest less than 8,000 acres of fall tomatoes compared with more than 17,000 in 1999.

Following a year of limited supply and elevated prices, production of summer storage onions is expected to rise 5 percent to about 54 million hundredweight (cwt) in 2007.

The storage crop provides the bulk of the nation’s onions until next spring, accounting for 71 percent of all onions grown. Output rose despite a 4 percent reduction in harvested area as yield rose 10 percent to 512 hundreweight per acre — second only to the 2004 record.

Given strong supplies and average demand over the next several months, fresh dry bulb onion prices are expected to remain well below the highs experienced a year earlier.

Contract production of sweet corn for processing is forecast to drop 7 percent from a year earlier to 2.88 million short tons. Contract area for sweet corn, the second largest processing vegetable (excluding potatoes) after tomatoes, was down 5 percent in 2007, with canning area down 9 percent and freezing area up 1 percent. Although down 2 percent, sweet corn yields are expected to be the third highest on record.

Fresh-market prices

Retail prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 3 percent above a year earlier through the first nine months of 2007. Prices for lettuce, broccoli and other vegetables each averaged higher than during the initial three quarters of 2006.

Assuming average weather this fall, fresh-market retail prices during October-December 2007 are expected to increase from a year earlier.

Wholesale prices for melon crops averaged 14 percent above a year earlier during the first nine months of 2007. Higher prices during the spring and late fall shipping seasons outweighed lower prices in late spring and summer. Melon area for harvest is expected to decline 7 percent this fall to 15,200 acres due to reduced cantaloupe and honeydew area in California and Arizona.

Despite continued weakness in the U.S. dollar, the volume of fresh-market vegetable and melon imports (excluding potatoes) was up 9 percent from a year ago during the first 8 months of 2007 (January through August).

Volume increased for commodities such as table beets and horseradish, onions, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, sweet corn and squash.

Volume was reduced for commodities such as spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, okra, eggplant and miscellaneous melons.

Most of the increase in volume occurred during the March-May period when imports surged 15 percent from a year earlier due to weather-reduced domestic supplies and higher prices.

Fresh-market vegetable and melon import volume declined 2 percent during the June-August period as prices eased and domestic supplies improved compared with the heat-reduced levels of last summer.

Tomato imports were up 3 percent during the first eight months of 2007 with growth coming from grape tomatoes (up 26 percent), greenhouse tomatoes (up 11 percent), and Roma tomatoes (up 6 percent). Imports of field-grown round tomatoes fell 11 percent, while the volume of cherry tomato imports slipped 3 percent.

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