U.S. fresh-market vegetable and melon acreage is expected to rise by 3 percent this fall to 163,900 acres, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Fall acreage is forecast the same or higher for all produce except for celery, cucumbers, head lettuce and tomatoes.

Although crops in both Eastern and Western growing areas were reported to be in good condition as of mid-October, yields and shipment volume could change quickly, given the variability in fall weather the past several years.

A year ago, the industry was dealing with severe supply disruptions caused by hurricane and rain storm damage to tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, cucumbers, and many other crops.

Assuming average weather, supplies should be more than adequate to meet steady-to-weaker demand. Given the acreage projections, current weather, and a return to trend yields, potential fall-season fresh vegetable and melon shipments could total above that of a year ago.

Total fresh vegetable shipment volume did not decline last fall despite severe storm damage in both Florida and California, as increased lettuce and onion volume offset reductions for tomatoes, snap beans, and peppers. While potential supplies could be up this fall, demand may have weakened a bit over the past couple of months as a result of hurricane damage to the Gulf Coast and a reduction in discretionary income caused by the surge in energy prices. As a result, fall-quarter f.o.b. shipping-point prices are expected to average about a tenth below the storm-affected highs of a year-earlier.

During the fall, the top five fresh vegetables in terms of volume (excluding potatoes and onions) are head lettuce, tomatoes, celery, cabbage, and carrots. Head lettuce area is down 3 percent with yields likely to average near those of a year ago despite an early October bout with abnormally high temperatures in California. Fall tomato area is also down (1 percent), with Florida area steady and California area lower.

Minimal damage was experienced by most Florida fall-season growers from the passing storms this summer. California, which expects to harvest 4 percent more area of vegetables and melons this fall, accounts for nearly two-thirds of fall-season area. Much of the gain in California this year is due to cantaloupes, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. Florida, with one-fifth of domestic fall-season area, expects to harvest 1 percent more fresh acreage, led by sweet corn and cabbage.

Wholesale prices for melon crops have averaged 6 percent above a year earlier during the first nine months of 2005. Spurred by generally higher prices this past summer, melon area for harvest is expected to jump 35 percent this fall to 15,800 acres due largely to a 45-percent jump in cantaloupe area. Fall cantaloupe area is up in both California and Arizona.

F.o.b. shipping-point prices for fresh-market vegetables and melons declined 3 percent from a year earlier this past summer (July-September). This was also 2 percent below the average of the previous five summers and the second consecutive summer that aggregate commercial fresh-market prices have eased. Most of this decline reflected lower shipping-point prices for broccoli (down 23 percent) and head lettuce (down 10 percent). Prices for onions (up 27 percent) and carrots (up 24 percent) were higher, while fresh tomato prices were flat.

The value of fresh-market vegetable and melon imports (excluding potatoes) was up 7 percent from a year ago during the first eight months of 2005. Much of the increase occurred during May and June when volume surged 15 percent due in part to increased imports of greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and okra.

Although imports of all tomatoes were down 4 percent from a year earlier, the volume of greenhouse tomato imports continued to trend higher. Greenhouse tomatoes accounted for 31 percent of all tomatoes imported through August compared with 20 percent a year earlier. The value of greenhouse tomato imports rose 49 percent to $334 million during the first eight months of the year.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com