For the second consecutive year, the Florida vegetable industry suffered substantial hurricane damage to vegetable crops and infrastructure in 2005.

On Oct. 24, Hurricane Wilma moved across southern Florida, resulting in severe damage to the vegetable industry in several counties from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast. The counties hit hardest by Hurricane Wilma included Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Lee, and Collier. The majority of the vegetables produced in these areas are marketed from mid- December through March.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida vegetable industry suffered an estimated $311 million in losses to crops and infrastructure from four hurricanes (Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma) in 2005. During 2002-04, Florida's cash receipts from the sale of vegetables averaged $1.5 billion annually, with one-third of this from fresh-market tomatoes.

Among the four hurricanes to hit Florida, the impact on the vegetable industry from Wilma was the most visible. Fall and winter vegetable crops in various stages of development were damaged or destroyed, raising prices for crops such as peppers, cucumbers, green beans and squash.

However, because of seasonal supplies from California, Georgia, and other states, the response of national prices to the damage in Florida was muted for crops such as tomatoes until mid-November, when shipments began to decline seasonally in production regions outside of Florida.

Because shipment volume was stronger this fall than a year ago, prices for crops such as bell peppers and snap beans generally peaked at lower levels than reached in 2004. However, grower prices for December tomatoes could reach highs similar to 2004, with mid-month f.o.b. prices at around $1.20 per pound.

Damage to vegetable crops in the major fall-producing area (Palmetto-Ruskin) was not as severe as in 2004 when fall crops such as tomatoes and peppers and some of the supporting infrastructure were virtually wiped out. This year, damage to winter-producing areas, such as Homestead, came early enough that most crops could be replanted and still allow production to begin close to normal market windows in late December and early January.

Following the cleanup from Wilma, growers in southern Florida replanted crops such as green beans and squash, and the harvest of these crops began in mid-December of this past year. Throughout the fall, cool-season crops (lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, etc.) produced in California and other states remained in good supply at low prices, providing an offset to Florida's elevated vegetable prices.

California generally accounts for about two-thirds of domestic fall-season fresh vegetable area, with Florida harvesting about one-fifth. Prices for warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes and bell peppers were expected to remain strong as reduced Florida volume combined with a slow start to the west Mexico winter vegetable season (due to earlier heat and pest pressures).

Retail prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 6 percent above a year earlier through the first 10 months of 2005. Prices for head lettuce (up 10 percent), tomatoes (10 percent), broccoli (15 percent) and miscellaneous fresh vegetables (4 percent) each averaged higher than during the initial 10 months of 2004.

Although f.o.b. shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables and melons actually declined 10 percent in November from a year earlier, much greater impacts are expected in December and early January. Prices at all levels of the marketing chain were expected to ease in January as supplies of warm-season vegetables build from both Florida and Mexico.

e-mail: phollis@prismb2b.com