Fresh-market vegetable acreage in the United States is expected to decline by 4 percent for the 2005 spring season, to an estimated 300,700 acres. The spring fresh-market vegetable season generally runs from April to June.

Florida, where crop growth has been slowed this spring by cool, wet, windy weather, is expected to harvest 23 percent of the U.S. spring vegetable area. Florida's acreage is expected to rise 2 percent from a year ago, led by bell peppers — up 7 percent — and tomatoes, which are up by 3 percent from 2004 levels. The rise in these crops is largely a reaction to modestly favorable prices this past spring, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

Most of Florida's spring bell pepper crop is sold in April and May, with April volume accounting for nearly one-fourth of the state's annual output. Spring tomato production also is strongest during April and May in Florida, with spring acreage continuing to creep higher the past several years, reflecting improved demand, and the apparent success of the suspension agreement preventing the undercutting of U.S. prices when markets are low.

California, which accounts for 50 percent of spring vegetable area, expects to harvest 8 percent fewer acres this year with much of the reduction due to head lettuce (down 24 percent), asparagus (down 8 percent), and broccoli (down 6 percent).

Cool, wet winter weather delayed planting and other field activity and slowed the growth of some spring crops in California and Arizona. If the cool, wet weather pattern continues along coastal California this spring, yields could be reduced and disease pressure increased, further trimming potential shipment volume, which already has been tightened by reduced acreage.

Spring onion shipping-point prices in 2004 averaged the second highest from the past 11 years. This helps explain why growers decided to plant 4 percent more area this year despite extremely low prices for the 2004-2005 fall storage season.

Georgia, which planted 7 percent fewer onions this year, expects average yields — after last year's record-high yields — and a smaller crop. Full-scale shipments of Georgia's Vidalia onions were scheduled to begin during the last week of April. Although the crop came through the winter in good condition, an early spring hailstorm reportedly damaged some acreage.

The Texas spring onion crop has the potential to reach record-high yields (335 cwt. per acre is projected) after a mild growing season. Despite the wet winter and spring, good yields are expected from California, even though the crop is two weeks late due to cool temperatures.

The combination of a relatively strong economy and good demand, lower harvested acreage, and weather-reduced yields may keep moderate upward pressure on fresh-market shipping-point prices this spring, according to the USDA report. Assuming average weather, spring season f.o.b. shipping-point prices for commercial fresh-market vegetables are expected to average 10 to 15 percent higher than a year earlier.

With Mexican volume also lower, prices likely will be firm through May after a lull through mid-April caused by the market vacuum left by an early Easter. The traditional Easter demand push came during late March this year versus early April last year, when Easter was on April 11. Higher prices are expected for most fresh-market vegetables this spring, with carrots being one of the few likely exceptions.

Winter weather generally began and ended with cool, wet spells in the West, but it was generally frost-free in the South. Despite cool, rainy periods, fresh vegetable shipment volume was up 2 percent during the winter quarter, running January through March. Coupled with demand-slowing above-average snowfall at times in major population centers, prices were under downward pressure much of the winter.

As a result, winter quarter shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged about 13 percent below those of a year earlier but were 3 percent above the lows of two years ago. Despite lower shipping-point prices, first quarter fresh vegetable retail prices rose nearly 2 percent from a year earlier.

Per capita use of fresh-market vegetables and melons — excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, pulses and mushrooms — increased 2 percent to a record 174 pounds in 2004, according to the latest USDA numbers. Disappearance totaled 51.2 billion pounds, also a record high. Excluding melons, per capita use of fresh vegetables rose 4 percent to nearly 150 pounds in 2004.

Per capita disappearance increased for spinach, cauliflower, onions, cabbage, and romaine and leaf lettuce. Per capita use declined for items such as garlic, asparagus, celery and tomatoes. In 2005, per capita fresh vegetable disappearance is expected to increase by about 1 percent as the rising use of tomatoes, spinach, garlic and leaf and romaine lettuce outweighs potential reductions for onions, iceberg lettuce and carrots.

During the first two months of 2005, the volume of fresh vegetable imports — excluding potatoes and melons — increased by 6 percent compared with a year earlier. While items such as tomatoes and sweet corn were lower, most other imports, such as garlic and asparagus, rose. With the exception of greenhouse tomatoes — up 52 percent — fresh tomato imports were down across the board, falling 7 percent to 430 million pounds.

On the export side of the ledger, the volume of fresh market vegetables and melons totaled 7 percent greater than during the first two months of 2004. The quantity of fresh vegetables to Canada (up 3 percent) and Japan (83 percent) increased, while volume sent to Mexico fell 5 percent.

Combined, these three nations accounted for 94 percent of U.S. export volume. During the first two months of 2005, U.S. export volume increased for items such as onions — up 32 percent — leaf and romaine lettuce, and peppers.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com