Large tomato supplies depressing prices

Several months after freezing weather in January devastated the Florida winter tomato crop, and a cool spring slowed growth of the spring crop, domestic fresh-market tomato shipments have recovered, according to USDA’s latest Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

By the last of May, shipments from Florida were back to full seasonal volume. Unfortunately, the extensive delays resulted in a compressed market window, with several weeks being trimmed from the domestic spring-tomato market.

As a result of greatly improved availability, shipping-point prices for tomatoes and many other vegetables and melons have declined sharply from their previous highs, according to the report.

According to preliminary data, Florida’s tomato (all types) shipments during January-April were down 54 percent from the average of the previous five years. At the same time, tomato import shipments were 49 percent above the five-year average.

Total tomato shipments during this period were even with the average of the previous five years although there were differences in the relative shares by tomato type. For example, Roma tomatoes accounted for a larger market share than usual (one-third versus one-fourth) since these are popular in Mexico and were largely what was available for export to the United States.

In early June, a 25-pound box of large mature green tomatoes was selling for as little as $5 — down from the unusually strong (weather-driven) $18 a year earlier. In early May of 2010, that same commodity was selling for $20 per 25-pound carton.

According to budgets prepared by the University of Florida, the total cost of production for Florida spring season tomatoes is now more than $9 per box (around $15,000 per acre). With a glut of product on the market, economic abandonment of tomatoes has been seen in some fields. As a result of the weather-driven over-supply of tomatoes, USDA announced on June 4 the intention to purchase up to $6 million of fresh tomatoes for various federal food nutrition assistance programs.

On the retail side of the fresh-vegetable market, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for fresh-market vegetables has averaged 2 percent above a year earlier since the start of 2010. Despite surging prices for field-grown tomatoes, cabbage and romaine lettuce, lower average prices for potatoes (the most heavily weighted item in the CPI for fresh vegetables), head lettuce and broccoli has kept the index in check.

According to USDA’s Market News Service, average advertised retail prices at major national retail supermarket outlets for selected vegetables during the initial three weeks of June 2010 were as follows:

• Asparagus declined 4 percent from a year earlier to $2.44 per pound.

• Green beans fell 2 percent to $1.23 per pound.

• Baby carrots slipped 3 percent to $1.29 per pound.

• Sweet corn increased 9 percent to 37 cents per ear.

• Iceberg lettuce jumped 17 percent to $1.12 per head.

• Green bell peppers averaged 3 percent less at $1.42 per pound.

• Zucchini squash rose 4 percent to $1.19 per pound.

• Round field-grown tomatoes fell 8 percent to $1.29 per pound.

• Hothouse tomatoes on the vine fell 3 percent to $1.87 per pound.

Entering the summer season, soil and subsoil moisture in most eastern and midwestern fresh-vegetable production areas is adequate this year. This may become important if predictions of a warmer-than-normal summer materialize.

Because weather was favorable to begin the season, crop growth in the midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) is reportedly on schedule or slightly ahead this year.

Pest and disease pressures have generally been light so far this year, although the early warm weather in some states has accelerated the first appearances of some pests. A few early incidences of tomato late blight (mostly in retail garden plants) have been reported in states such as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland and Louisiana.

Assuming average weather (with yields improving from the spring season) and a small gain in acreage, the outlook for the summer season (July-September) appears to favor adequate supplies and generally steady to slightly lower prices than a year ago.

Assuming favorable conditions in California, plus a strong start for most eastern and midwestern vegetable growers, market volume could improve from a year earlier when weather extremes sliced yields in New York, Maryland, and Illinois.

Supplies of locally grown vegetables and melons are expected to continue to expand along with increasing consumer interest.

Although product movement is expected to show improvement in retail, foodservice and farmer’s markets this summer, summer-season shipping-point and retail prices may not follow.

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