Vegetable prices up, supplies down due to December freezes in Florida

At $1 each, ears of sweet corn tucked in their husks didn’t get many takers at the Bonita Springs Farmers Market on Wednesday.

Following three freezes that hit Florida in December, fresh corn is in much shorter supply than usual this winter. Retail prices have doubled.

Prices have jumped for other vegetables too because of the unusually bad weather that beat up Florida’s crops last month.

Nationally, advertised retail prices for squash/zucchini are up 19 percent from a year ago. Green beans have risen 33 percent and bell peppers are up 8 percent, compared to where they were in January 2010, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There’s so little corn available and so few sellers that the USDA couldn’t even track retail prices this month.

At the Bonita farmers market, only one vendor had ears of corn this week. They came from Homestead, where crop damage from December’s historic freezes wasn’t as severe.

Dean Rambo, 73, and his wife, Helen, 70, winter residents of Bonita, passed on the corn.

“We understand the prices,” she said. “But you can only pay so much regardless.”

At Publix this week, four ears of corn are going for $4.99. That’s about double what they were selling for in early December.

Kim Houser, 33, a year-round Bonita Springs resident, said she’s buying frozen corn now because it’s not nearly as expensive. With four kids, she has to watch her budget closely.

She only works a few hours a week, relying mostly on her husband’s paycheck to pay the bills and support the family.

On Wednesday, she gave herself $20 to spend at the Bonita farmers market off Old 41 Road. Her purchases included peppers, a bag of oranges, an avocado and strawberries.

Her friend, Andrea Noyes, 30, who also lives in Bonita, said the farmers market is the way to go when it comes to saving money on fresh produce. But she was considering another option.

“I want to grow my own,” she said. “I really do.”

For some, the rising prices aren’t much of a deterrent.

“If I wanted corn, I’d buy it,” said retiree Jan Weimer, who lives in Bonita Springs.

She found nothing that she needed or wanted at the farmers market on Wednesday. She still had produce left from her visit last week.

Weimer’s friend and neighbor, Gerry Stiles, a seasonal Bonita resident and retired farmer, left with a shopping bag of produce, but it didn’t include corn or green beans. She had tomatoes, peppers, an onion and a bag of popcorn kernels, which she was eager to try.

Typically, corn is more expensive this time of year. It’s more affordable in the summer, when there is a greater supply and it’s more in demand for picnics and barbecues.

“If you like corn, you will pay the price. Just being able to get it now is amazing anyway,” said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

“Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, you would have never seen sweet corn at the supermarket during the winter,” he said. “It was a novelty.”

This time of year, most of the country’s sweet corn comes from Palm Beach County. The crop there was hammered by the freezes, with losses estimated as high as 80 percent, said Ron Rice, a vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS in Belle Glade.

“When a disaster like this happens in Florida, the whole country is going to feel it,” he said.

Green bean losses in Palm Beach County are estimated at 60 to 90 percent. Supplies are running thin, though they are still coming out of Homestead and Miami-Dade County.

One vendor at the Bonita farmers market had green beans to sell on Wednesday. The price was $2 for a pint-size carton.

Green beans from Florida have jumped to more than $48 a bushel, up from a low of $8 at Thanksgiving.

In Southwest Florida, two of the biggest crops are tomatoes and bell peppers. The prices for those winter vegetables have not risen as much, in part because they weren’t hit as hard by the December freezes. Losses on those two crops are estimated at about 50 percent in the five-county region, which includes Collier, Lee and Hendry.

“There were a lot of tomatoes south and west of Immokalee that seemed to fair better,” said Fritz Roka, an agricultural economist with the University of Florida/IFAS in Immokalee.

He said the freeze in January 2010 was much worse for tomato and pepper growers in Southwest Florida.

“Packing houses are still working,” he said. “We are still harvesting crops.”

Following the freeze in January of last year, tomato packing houses in Immokalee shut down for six weeks because “we had nothing left,” said Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS based in Hendry County. Tomato supplies were so short then that fast-food chains, such as Wendy’s and Burger King, didn’t have enough slices to put on their sandwiches and hamburgers.

Nationally, retail prices for tomatoes are down 45 percent from where they were a year ago, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In January 2010, they were selling for $1.90 a pound at retail. This year, they’re at $1.05.

Locally, Florida-grown round tomatoes are selling for $1.99 a pound at Publix.

Following last January’s freeze, a 25-pound box of tomatoes jumped from $9 to $18.

“This year, we haven’t seen the price response. We’ve still got $9 a box tomatoes that are being sold,” said John Van Sickle, an agricultural economist with the University of Florida/IFAS in Gainesville.

The severe weather up north has put a damper on the demand for tomatoes. With fewer people eating out, restaurants aren’t buying as many tomatoes. People aren’t eating as many salads and sandwiches, so they’re not buying as many tomatoes. Also, it’s been harder to ship tomatoes up north because of snow storms, which has also curbed demand, Van Sickle said.

“Our total volume of tomatoes this season is about half of what is normal and we are not seeing anybody replace our volume,” he said. “It’s more a matter of demand has not been there.”

Though citrus crops saw damage from the freezes, there’s still a good supply of fruit. Fruit prices have not surged. However, frozen-orange-juice futures have shot up based on projections for a smaller than expected crop this season.

This week, Publix has Florida oranges on sale, offering two 4-pound bags for $4. Grapefruit is also on sale at 10 for $5.

In a monthly report released Wednesday, the USDA reduced Florida’s orange crop estimate for the 2010-11 season by 3 million boxes. It’s now at 140 million boxes.

“While the industry as a whole came through the cold in decent shape; we did have frozen fruit and leaf damage across most of the growing regions as well as more extensive damage in a few select areas, and this report reflects that,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, in a statement.

“No doubt there will be more changes to the monthly crop estimate reports as we move through the remainder of the season and the freeze damage becomes more apparent,” he said.

USDA researchers are doing a special survey to determine how much last month’s freezes have hurt Florida’s citrus crop. The results of that survey will be released on Jan. 18.

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

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