In Florida, which harvests 23 percent of spring area, acreage is expected to rise 4 percent from a year ago, led by bell peppers (up 20 percent), cucumbers (up 13 percent) and tomatoes (up 6 percent).

The increase in bell pepper acreage is largely a reaction to strong prices during the last quarter and relatively favorable prices a year ago. Florida’s spring tomato acreage is the largest since 1992 and likely reflects renewed market confidence following the Dec. 2, 2002, signing of a new suspension agreement governing imports of fresh tomatoes from Mexico. The agreement prevents the under cutting of U.S. prices when the market is low.

California, which accounts for 51 percent of the U.S. spring vegetable acreage, expects to harvest 2 percent fewer acres, with the entire reduction due to asparagus (down 15 percent), carrots (down 8 percent) and tomatoes (down 5 percent).

A mild growing season is expected to boost yields and leave the state’s fresh-market shipments at or above year-earlier levels.

As expected — despite a 10 percent cut in plantings — area for harvest of spring onions is expected to decline by just 2 percent as better weather this spring limits acreage losses.

Georgia’s Vidalia onions came through the winter in good condition, but there are concerns that recent heavy rainfall may yet lead to occurrences of bacterial diseases similar to those that caused heavy losses in 2002. Growers are spraying onions and hoping for warm, dry weather.

The Texas onion crop is sizing well after a cool fall and a mild winter in the lower Rio Grande Valley. A larger share of this year’s Texas crop will be coming from the Winter Garden region of Texas, which begins harvest in May. Good Yields are expected from California, which began shipping a bit earlier than usual.

Spring onion growers entered a market that experienced surging higher prices since February (March prices were 3.5 times higher than a year earlier) as the storage crop in the Northwest saw a late surge in export demands, and imports from Mexico were lower due to rain-slowed crops.

Last spring, onion prices averaged 41 percent above the previous year due largely to crop losses in Georgia. Assuming limited losses in Georgia this spring and good yields in other states, onion prices are expected to ease from their March/April highs in the coming months as supplies build, with shipping-point prices forecast to average 10 to 15 percent below a year earlier during the second quarter, April-June.

Although planted area for summer non-storage onions is expected to rise 1 percent, area for storage onions (marketed in the following spring) is forecast to decline 3 percent. Storage onion area in California, most of which is earmarked for dehydrated products, is expected to rise 6 percent to 33,500 acres - still well below the 1999 record-high of 41,600 acres.

Excluding the California processing crop, area for U.S. storage onions is forecast down 7 percent, with concerns over water availability in Idaho and Colorado and low prices a concern in all storage regions. Colorado onion growers, under economic pressure from other regions since the mid-1990s, expect the plant the lowest area since 1981.

A combination of reduced consumer confidence and strong supplies from California and Florida may keep downward pressure on fresh-market vegetable prices this spring. However — assuming average weather — spring fresh-market vegetable prices currently are expected to average near or below those of a year earlier.

Higher prices for asparagus, lettuce and celery are expected to be offset by lower prices for crops such as peppers, onions, tomatoes and broccoli.

Relatively mild weather in growing areas this past winter supported production while above-average snowfall in major population centers tended to slow demand. As a result, first (winter) quarter (January-March) shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables averaged 43 percent below a year ago and 13 percent lower than two years ago. Lower shipping-point prices also pulled retail prices (excluding potatoes) down 2 percent from a year earlier.

Fresh-market shipments — including imports but excluding melons — averaged 2 percent above a year earlier despite indications of a sharp drop in March.

Shipping-point prices for head lettuce, which surged a year ago, averaged $11.07/cwt during the first quarter of 2003 - down 79 percent. Prices for broccoli (down 38 percent) and cauliflower (down 34 percent) also were much lower. In contrast, tomato prices, which fell 18 percent last winter, jumped 25 percent during the first quarter of 2003 as the effects of winter cold snaps in Florida slowed shipments.

During January-February, the volume of fresh-market vegetable imports rose 10 percent from a year earlier. While items such as celery (down 25 percent) and broccoli (down 18 percent) were lower, most other imports, such as asparagus (up 67 percent), exhibited increases.

Fresh tomato imports were up 18 percent to 547 million pounds. Tomatoes largely were driven by a 28-percent jump in roma tomatoes. Romas accounted for 34 percent of tomato imports during these two months.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com