The early outlook for spring-season fresh-market and melon plantings indicates a small decline from a year earlier as growers respond to generally lower prices received last spring and this winter, according to USDA.

Due to several incidences of torrential winter rains along California’s south and central coasts, supply gaps for some leafy crops may appear during the early spring season, predicts the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

The heavy rains flooded fields and slowed or stopped planting and other field activities, which could throw off the harvest timing of many early spring vegetable crops. As a result, the spring season could begin with a period of high shipping-point prices for several commodities.

If these gaps begin to appear when produce demand is usually strong, shipping-point prices could exhibit even stronger temporary surges, states USDA. Although prices are expected to moderate as volume increases seasonally later in the spring, shipping-point prices could average as much as a tenth above those of a year earlier during the April-June quarter.

Area planted to spring-season onions is estimated to have risen 1 percent in 2005 compared with a year earlier and is 12 percent higher than in 2003. The estimated 40,300 acres is the most planted since 2000 and follows a large and low-priced fall storage onion crop.

Among the four onion-producing states, only Georgia planted fewer acres — down 9 percent — from a year ago. Given the expected decline in Vidalia onion area, Texas growers will have the most planted area this year, with an increase in acreage of 5 percent. The crop is in generally good condition in all growing areas with no weather or disease problems noted thus far.

Assuming no unusual weather or disease problems arise this spring, spring-season onion yields could reach trend levels of 328 million cwt. If trend yields are attained, they would be the fourth highest on record but still would be 3 percent below the strong yields experienced last year. Trend yields and average acreage abandonment would result in a crop similar to that of a year ago.

Onion prices — currently running a third lower than the favorable levels experienced last winter — will increase in the coming months as storage supplies are exhausted and the spring crop is marketed. The domestic spring onion crop will account for about 4 pounds of the estimated 20 pounds of onions that the average American will consume.

Acreage for harvest of fresh-market vegetables during the winter season — largely January through March — increased 2 percent from a year earlier. Although January shipping-point prices across all U.S. commercial vegetable production areas sunk 24 percent below a year earlier, prices in February and March are expected to return to more seasonal levels as supplies move more into line with demand.

Shipments of cool-season winter crops, including lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, from the California and Arizona desert regions got off to a rocky start this year due to cold, wet conditions.

Despite unusually heavy rain in both the desert and the supporting production regions along California’s south coast, market volume was strong into February, and shipping-point prices were universally low during the entire first half of the winter.

The heavy volume was due in part to good yields resulting from an extended period of above-normal temperatures in the California and Arizona desert areas, which set in after the initial heavy rains. The warmth accelerated harvests of leafy crops such as lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower and caused some harvest “bunching,” resulting in excess market supplies.

As a result, there were no reports of vegetable fields being abandoned in January due to the extended period of low shipping-point prices.

In a similar vein, strong supplies of warm-season crops, including tomatoes, peppers and others from Florida and Mexico led to low shipping-point prices for these vegetables during the first half of the winter season. Although January shipping-point prices for these vegetables across all U.S. commercial vegetable production areas sunk 24 percent below a year earlier, prices in February and March were expected to return to more seasonal levels as supplies move more into line with demand. As a result, winter quarter 2005 fresh-market shipping-point prices are expected to average 3 to 7 percent below those of a year earlier.

With temperatures remaining above freezing in most Southern production regions this summer, fresh shipments of tomatoes and peppers from both Florida and Mexico had fully recovered from the fall-season shortages by early January.

Field-grown tomato shipping-point prices, which peaked in November at a record $1.24 per pound, began to decline in early December and into the first two weeks of January and averaged a very low 22 cents per pound during January (average cost of production is 32 to 36 cents per pound). Over the past five years, fresh tomato prices averaged 38 cents per pound in January.

The retail price for tomatoes, which tends to lag the shipping-point price by four to six weeks, reached a record-high $2.47 per pound this past December — exceeding the previous high set in February of 1999. Retail prices began to ease in January, averaging $1.66 per pound, up 13 percent from a year earlier.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com