Consumption of several fresh-market vegetables could reach record-highs this year, spurring an increase in acreage for the U.S. spring crop. About half of the increase in spring acreage will come from the two major states — California and Florida.

Per capita vegetable use is forecast to increase by about 1 percent in 2004 to 449 pounds, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook. Increased use is expected of fresh-market vegetables, melons and canning vegetables, with declining use expected for potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Assuming continued favorable weather into the fall and a strengthening economy, consumption of several fresh-market vegetables could reach record-highs in 2004, according to the report.

Fresh-market tomato production is expected to recover from the weather-reduced levels of 2003 and help push domestic tomato use above the record-high of 18.2 pounds per person. Similarly, increased acreage could push onion production higher in 2004, which could allow the use of fresh dry-bulb onions to exceed the 1997 record-high.

With fresh-market vegetable prices averaging above a year earlier for each of the past four quarters, growers have indicated they will harvest 3 percent more fresh-market vegetable area during the current spring quarter, which runs from April through June.

Area for harvest of 11 selected fresh-market vegetables — excluding onions and asparagus — is forecast to total 222,400 acres this spring. About half of the increase in spring acreage will come from Florida and California.

California, which accounts for 57 percent of selected spring area, increased vegetable area 2 percent. Yields are expected to be about average despite early periods of cool, wet weather followed by extreme heat in March.

Increased area is expected across all the selected commodities, with the exception of sweet corn. Acreage for tomatoes — up 14 percent — and cauliflower — up 5 percent — are expected to rise the most. Cauliflower, along with other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, are favored by proponents of the popular Atkins Diet.

Florida, the second leading fresh-vegetable producer with 32 percent of U.S. area, intends to increase acreage just 1 percent. Yields are expected to be average this spring as no unusual weather or pest problems have been reported in the major growing regions.

Most of Florida's gain will be due to increases in snap beans — up 15 percent — and bell peppers — up 4 percent — which will outweigh reduced area for tomatoes — down 4 percent — and sweet corn — down 2 percent.

Assuming average weather, shipping-point prices are expected to fall this spring by about a tenth below the highs of a year earlier. Increased acreage and average yields should provide ample supplies of most vegetables into early summer.

Cool, wet weather last spring cut shipments, causing prices to soar for several items, including onions and lettuce — two of the leading vegetables in terms of consumption.

This year, early spring shipments of onions from Mexico were hampered by heavy rains, keeping prices above the average of the past several years. However, increasing volume from Texas and Georgia is expected to keep further price advances in check.

Shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 23 percent above a year earlier during the winter quarter, running from January through March.

An unusually cool, wet winter in Mexico reduced exports to the United States and caused prices for crops such as tomatoes and onions to become higher than anticipated. This winter, retail prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 5 percent more than a year earlier.

Fresh-market shipments — including imports but excluding melons — during the winter were 1 percent below a year earlier. Shipping-point prices for head lettuce, which were restrained a year ago, averaged $15.40 per cwt. during the first quarter of 2004 — up 42 percent as shipment fell 11 percent.

Prices for asparagus — up 130 percent — and celery — up 93 percent — also were much higher. In contrast, tomato prices, which jumped 21 percent last winter, fell 10 percent during the first quarter of 2004 as shipment volume increased by 11 percent.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com