Fresh-market vegetable acreage, excluding melons and storage onions, is expected to rise 5 percent from a year earlier during the fourth quarter of 2009, according to the USDA’s latest Vegetable and Melon Outlook Report.

Weather has been variable this fall, with a favorable start giving way to an unusually strong Oct. 13 storm featuring wind and heavy rain in central and northern California and some unusually cool weather in parts of Florida. Assuming minor yield impacts, market shipments could improve from last fall, according to the report.

California accounts for about two-thirds of the fall area while Florida expects to harvest about one-fifth of the fall fresh-vegetable crop. Growers of eight of the 11 surveyed crops are expected to increase acreage this fall.

The largest increases over a year ago were for cabbage, cucumbers and head lettuce while bell peppers and carrots were the most notable decreases. Until this fall, area had declined during each of the quarterly seasons in 2009 with the majority of the reductions coming during the winter (down 5 percent) and the spring (down 4 percent).

Despite the gain this fall, annual 2009 fresh-market vegetable acreage is projected to be 1 to 2 percent lower than a year earlier. Although annual estimated harvested area for melon crops was up slightly (less than 1 percent), area for bulb onions (down 3 percent) and asparagus for all uses (down 5 percent) was lower this year. As a result, annual fresh-market vegetable and melon harvested area is projected to be down a little more than 1 percent from the 1.73 million acres of 2008. Given this area and prospects for average yields, production of fresh-market vegetables and melons may have declined 1 percent in 2009 — falling back to 1999 levels (447 million hundredweight (cwt).

This fall area for harvest of the two reported melon crops was estimated to be 17,200 acres — 19 percent higher than a year earlier. Area is expected to be up strongly for both honeydew and cantaloupes with both crops benefiting from favorable weather in the desert growing regions of California and Arizona.

Although cantaloupe area was steady in California, estimates indicate that growers in Arizona intend to harvest 9,700 acres — up 29 percent from a year earlier and the largest fall cantaloupe area in Arizona this decade.

Despite shipment volume running below that of a year earlier, late summer grower prices for both cantaloupes and honeydew melons were relatively low leading into the fall season this year. Prices are normally higher for the fall cantaloupe crop than during the summer months when yields are higher, with fall-season prices about 50 percent greater.

Over the past two years, fall cantaloupe grower prices have been among the highest this decade, running more than 10 percent above the average of the past five years. These higher prices may have convinced growers to plant additional area this fall.

On the price front, retail prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 7 percent below a year earlier during the summer quarter (July-September) of 2009. With the exception of sweet potatoes, average retail prices were steady or lower for most all major vegetables.

Given increased area and average weather this fall, fresh-market vegetable supplies are generally expected to be equal-to or greater-than a year ago, with retail prices slightly lower than a year earlier (prices rose 6 percent last fall).

Wholesale prices for all melons averaged about 7 percent above a year earlier during the summer quarter of 2009. Advertised retail prices for seedless watermelons averaged $4.12 each, up 4 percent from a year earlier. At the same time, small watermelons averaged $2.79 each — down 8 percent from a year ago. Retail prices for cantaloupes (down 10 percent to $1.96 each) and honeydew melons (down 6 percent to $2.80 each) also averaged below a year earlier this summer.

During the summer quarter of 2009 (July-September), the fresh-vegetable market was characterized by continued sluggish demand (especially in foodservice) and ample supplies buoyed by favorable weather (except in the northeast) and generally good yields.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s monthly Restaurant Performance Index, which tracks the industry’s economic health and outlook, the industry contracted for the 22nd consecutive month in August. As a result, until unemployment begins to turn around, little help can be expected on the demand side from the foodservice industry.

Despite supply disruptions and quality issues caused by cool coastal weather and the October storm in California, average weather from now on should yield improved volume and modestly lower prices.

Import volume is likely to be higher given favorable weather in Mexico as Hurricane Jimena’s wind and rains reportedly did little damage to Baja California’s infrastructure and fall vegetable crops.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com