The good news for U.S. vegetable growers is that consumption of their products rose in 2007. The bad news is that — given the current sluggish economy — little change is expected in the domestic use of vegetables and melons during 2008, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

This past year, per capita net domestic use of all vegetables, melons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pulse crops, and mushrooms rose 2 percent to 444 pounds per person. Among crops experiencing increased use were processing tomatoes, fresh potatoes, fresh onions and sweet potatoes.

Area expected to be planted to summer storage onions is forecast to decline by 6 percent in 2008 to 104,050 acres — the lowest storage area since 1992. Given average yields this past fall, production of storage onions is expected to be well below a year ago, bringing improved grower prices and revenue this coming fall.

Contract area planted to the five leading processing vegetables — tomatoes, sweet corn, snap beans, green peas, and cucumbers — is expected to decline by 2 percent from a year earlier to 1.18 million acres.

To secure these acres, processors reportedly had to increase contract prices substantially in response to strong competition for available acres from field crops like corn and wheat, which are also planted by most vegetable growers.

On a per person basis, net domestic use of fresh-market vegetables — excluding melons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pulses, and mushrooms — rose 2 percent to 155 pounds. Fresh use rose for such crops as onions, sweet corn, celery, cabbage, carrots, pumpkins and tomatoes, while dropping for squash, bell peppers, broccoli and cucumbers.

This year, fresh vegetable use is expected to decline slightly from that of a year earlier.

The estimated disappearance of all melons totaled a record high 8.5 billion pounds in 2007 — the third consecutive annual gain. On a per-capita basis, domestic disappearance of the top three melon crops increased by 2 percent from a year earlier to 28.1 pounds, driven by gains in cantaloupe and watermelon use.

Per capita disappearance of processing vegetables — excluding potatoes, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms — increased by 3 percent to 119 pounds in 2007, as use of vegetables for canning rose. The outlook for 2008 indicates another small gain in the use of processing vegetables led by an increased use of canning tomatoes and pickling cucumbers.

Excluding asparagus, onions, and melons, fresh-market area for harvest for 11 selected vegetables was forecast to decline 1 percent to 203,300 acres this spring, largely April through June. Prospective area was down for six of the 11 crops, with the greatest percentage declines for tomatoes, cauliflower and bell peppers.

California, which accounts for more than half of spring vegetable area, expects to harvest 1 percent fewer acres, with much of the reduction due to tomatoes, head lettuce and carrots.

Weather during most of the growing season has been favorable in California, and few pest or disease problems have been noted. With the possible exception of celery, normal yields are expected for most crops.

Mandated water rationing (to insure sufficient river flow for the endangered Delta Smelt) in the early spring growing area around Bakersfield/Huron prompted some growers to adjust planting and harvest schedules and/or move their early spring operations to other areas of the state.

The industry does not anticipate any disruption in market volume. Also, the supply of transplanting and harvest labor may be temporarily improved in some areas this spring because of the slowdown in the economy.

Florida, where the growth of spring vegetables was slowed by frosty, windy weather in late March, is expected to harvest nearly one-third of spring area for the 11 selected crops. Florida's area is expected to drop 1 percent from a year ago due to lower area for tomatoes (down 13 percent) and bell peppers (down 4 percent).

Area for tomatoes, which annually accounts for about one-third of Florida's $1.6 billion in vegetable cash receipts, is expected to decline to 15,000 acres — the lowest spring tomato area since 2000. A lower fresh-market tomato area, which likely reflects strong competition from imports and hothouse tomatoes, is also expected in California.

Acreage of sweet corn is up 6 percent in Florida, with good quality and yields expected this spring. Per capita use of fresh-market sweet corn has been trending higher over the past several years on improved quality and varieties.

Assuming continued favorable growing weather, yields should be improved from a year earlier, which should at least offset the effect of reduced area. Given adequate domestic supplies, strong import supplies, and sluggish demand due to the slow economy, U.S. spring-season grower/shipper prices for commercial fresh vegetables are expected to average at or below a year earlier.

Grower/shipper prices this spring are expected to average lower for crops such as onions, carrots and sweet corn, while averaging higher for lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower.