A cool, wet spring delayed planting and crop progress across most U.S. spring and summer vegetable-producing areas, according to the USDA’s latest Vegetable and Melons Outlook Report.

But in late June, warm weather was prevalent across most vegetable-growing areas, helping to promote crop growth. Long-term dry conditions have been alleviated in Southeastern vegetable areas hit hard by drought the past few years. But several areas, such as Arkansas, Georgia and Florida, have experienced excess rain and soil moisture this year, slowing field work and damaging crops such as tomatoes and onions, raising shipping-point prices.

A mid-May frost in parts of Michigan also damaged or delayed unprotected summer fresh vegetable crops. Cool weather in late May and June has delayed crop growth across much of the upper Midwest. California’s desert spring vegetable and melon season has begun to wind down, with strong yields and quality noted for sweet corn, onions and cantaloupes.

In California’s Central Valley, an unusual series of early June thunderstorms resulted in some limited hail damage to tomatoes, onions and carrots in Fresno County. Cool weather in early June also slowed growth of warm season crops such as tomatoes and melons. California is mired in the third year of drought, with greatly reduced surface water deliveries for crops in the Central Valley. However, although acreage may be lower, the impacts of reduced water on California’s fresh vegetable shipments are expected to be limited this summer.

Most leafy crops such as lettuce, celery and broccoli are grown in coastal areas irrigated with ground-water, while growers of crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and cantaloupes in the Central Valley will continue to shift water from lower-value crops or pump limited, costly and sometimes lower quality groundwater.

Over the first five months of 2009, fresh-market vegetable prices at the point of first sale, averaged 12 percent above a year earlier. Higher average prices were received for vegetable crops such as onions, sweet corn, lettuce, celery and cauliflower, easily outweighing lower average prices for tomatoes, snap beans and cucumbers.

With acreage and open-market supplies both lower, head lettuce prices averaged 39 percent above a year earlier during January-May. Assuming average weather, fresh vegetable shipping-point prices will likely be under downward pressure this summer as local supplies increase and foodservice demand remains weak.

During the January-May period, producer prices for melons averaged 23 percent below the strong levels of a year earlier. Supplies from domestic sources have begun to improve after a late start caused by cool, wet weather. April-May producer prices for melon crops averaged 28 percent below a year ago. Although May shipments of watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydew increased seasonally, volume remained below year-earlier levels for watermelons and cantaloupes.

With spring vegetable prices mixed in June — high for tomatoes but low for Celery — vegetable growers received a bit of relief this past spring in the form of lower production costs. In 2008, estimates suggest that input prices paid by vegetable growers jumped 19 percent after having risen 7 percent in each of the two previous years. Much of the increase a year ago occurred during the spring and summer and was driven primarily by higher prices for fertilizers, fuels and seeds.

This spring, although input prices for vegetable growers remain high, they have declined by 4 percent from the highs of a year ago as lower prices for fertilizer and fuel have outweighed increased costs for chemicals, land rent and seed.

Assuming average weather and little change in acreage, the outlook for the summer season (July-September) appears to favor adequate supplies and generally lower prices compared with a year ago. Despite the cool, wet spring and a slow start for most Eastern and Midwestern vegetable and melon growers, market volume should build by early July.

Although California growers are not expected to increase acreage this summer, it is possible that growers outside California have responded to the recent widespread media emphasis on local foods by increasing acreage slightly this summer. As a result, supplies may increase and summer-season shipping-point and retail prices could average somewhat below the high levels of a year ago. Despite sluggish demand caused by the weak economy, grower prices averaged 8 percent above the previous year last summer, partly reflecting increased costs for energy, transportation and packaging materials.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com