The slight decrease in U.S. fresh vegetable consumption seen in 2005 should right itself this year, led by increases in lettuce, bell peppers and snap beans.

The latest vegetables and melons outlook from the USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that per capita use or consumption of all fresh-market vegetables and melons totaled 174 pounds, down less than 1 percent from 2005. Disappearance of all vegetables and melons totaled 131 billion pounds in 2005, compared with 120 billion pounds a decade earlier.

Including asparagus and onions but excluding melons, selected fresh-market vegetable area for harvest was forecast to decline by 3 percent to 290,300 acres this spring season which runs largely from April through June. Much of the expected decline is due to asparagus and head lettuce.

California, which accounts for more than half of spring vegetable area, expects to harvest 3 percent fewer acres while Florida, which accounts for one-fourth of spring acreage, expects to harvest 1 percent fewer fresh vegetable acres.

Despite a reduced area, spring-season f.o.b. shipping-point prices for commercial fresh-market vegetables are expected to average about one tenth below the highs of a year earlier as shipments rise in the coming months.

This spring, area for harvest for the top three melon crops is forecast to increase 6 percent to 78,200 acres. The bulk of the increase is due to a 10-percent gain in cantaloupe area, with watermelon acreage also projected to rise, by about 4 percent. Prices for watermelon have been above year-earlier levels, while cantaloupe prices were near those of a year ago.

As has been the pattern over the last few years, cool, wet winter weather delayed planting and other field activity and slowed growth of some spring crops in California. Area for spring harvest of head lettuce, most of which comes from California, is expected to be down 8 percent, largely as a result of persistently low prices over the past year.

Florida, where crop growth was slowed by earlier cold weather, is expected to harvest about one-fourth of all spring vegetable area. Florida’s area is expected to drop 1 percent from a year ago due to lower area for snap beans (down 4 percent) and bell peppers (down 3 percent).

Area for tomatoes, which accounts annually for about one-third of Florida’s $1.5 billion in vegetable cash receipts, remained steady at 17,500 acres despite strong prices last spring. However, spring tomato yields may be affected by earlier whitefly damage. Florida’s spring sweet corn crop, much of which had to be replanted following the destructive Valentine’s Day freeze, also was unchanged from a year earlier at 21,000 acres.

Because the freeze effectively reduced the market window by a month for most of the Florida crop, growers were not able to fully respond to last year’s favorable sweet corn prices.

Assuming normal weather, spring-season f.o.b. shipping-point prices for commercial fresh vegetables are expected to average about one tenth below the highs of a year earlier and just above the average of the previous five years. Although shipping-point prices this spring are expected to average below those of a year earlier for most fresh-market vegetables (including tomatoes and onions), higher prices are possible for asparagus and celery.

Winter weather began and ended with cool, wet spells in the West and cold weather in Florida, including a hard freeze in central Florida in February. As a result, fresh-vegetable (excluding melons) shipment volume was down 2 percent during the winter quarter that runs from January through March.

Coupled with a relatively mild winter in most major population centers, prices were under upward pressure for the first two months of the winter. As a result, winter quarter shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged about 5 percent above those of a year earlier.

During the first two months of 2006, the volume of fresh vegetable (excluding potatoes and melons) imports increased 11 percent from a year earlier. While import volume for crops such as tomatoes (up 38 percent), bell peppers (26 percent), and snap beans (28 percent) were higher due largely to weather-reduced output from Florida, the import volume of such products as cucumbers (down 7 percent), onions (down 10 percent) and asparagus (down 9 percent) declined. Import volume increased across the board for most fresh-market tomatoes, including greenhouse tomatoes (up 39 percent), roma tomatoes (39 percent), other round tomatoes (36 percent), and grape and cherry tomatoes (each up 40 percent).

Because of the lingering effects of hurricanes and cold weather on early 2006 U.S. production, the January-February export volume of fresh-market vegetables (excluding potatoes and melons) declined 7 percent compared with the first two months of 2005. The quantity of fresh vegetables shipped to Canada (down 5 percent) and Japan (down 25 percent) decreased, while volume shipped to Mexico was down 1 percent. Combined, these three nations accounted for 94 percent of U.S. export volume.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com