An overall slight increase in U.S. per capita consumption of fresh-market vegetables in 2003 could portend good fortune for Georgia producers, according to one economist.

“Most of the major vegetables produced in Georgia, such as bell pepper, tomatoes, sweet corn, onion and cabbage all experienced a slight increase of 3 to 5 percent in per capita consumption,” says Greg Fonsah, University of Georgia agricultural economist.

Georgia's production of each of these vegetables far exceeds consumption, he adds, and an increase in per capita use is one way to increase marketability and get rid of the excess.

“On the other hand, per capita consumption for snap beans, cucumber and squash remained the same as in 2002,” says Fonsah. “Consumer awareness and campaigns for healthy food products will boost per capita consumption of most vegetables in subsequent years. “Furthermore, with the current weakened U.S. dollar against other currencies, our vegetables will become price competitive and affordable to foreign countries in general and consumers in particular.”

An upward trend in per capita consumption of food has triggered a nationwide increase in imported food, says Fonsah, and fruits, vegetables and cereals have benefited from this increase. The average U.S. consumption of these crops rose by 20 percent from the early 1980s to 2000.

“This is good news since Georgia is one of the major players in the production of these crops. Fruits, vegetable production and marketing continue to be one of the rapidly growing industries despite the ever-increasing pest and disease problems, numerous restrictions, the high cost of production, limited marketing windows, and extremely high regional and international competition,” says the economist.

A positive trend in U.S. consumer behavioral patterns stems from on-going consumer awareness and health-conscious education and advertisement programs, says Fonsah.

The Georgia vegetable industry contributed more than $661 million in 2002 to the state's total farm gate value by commodity groups, he says. Chronologically, watermelon, onions, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, cabbage, snap beans and squash are the top 10 in terms of farm gate value.

Watermelon, onion and sweet corn ranked 16th, 19th and 20th, respectively, and generated 1.1 percent, 0.8 percent and 0.8 percent of the state's 2002 farm gate.

“Although nationwide production and per capita consumption of watermelons declined by 7 percent and 13.9 pounds, respectively, in 2001, the state of Georgia still enjoyed a 9.7 percent growth in farm gate value in 2001 compared with 2000, and 17.6 percent growth in 2000 compared with 2001.”

Nationwide, fresh market vegetable and melon acreage dropped by 0.4 percent in 2002 and 2 percent in 2003, says Fonsah. “The increased acreage for broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn and cucumbers was not enough to offset the overall fall in production acreage, which stood at 308,100 acres in 2003. Prices received by farmers and shippers fell by 12 percent in the summer of 2002 but increased by 5 to 10 percent in the summer of 2003.

“Total fresh market export trade volume in 2002 was 39,322 million cwt. compared to almost double the total import trade of 65,609 million cwt. Severe heat waves in the West and East created a tomato supply shortage and triggered better shipping-point prices through mid-August.”

Summer season fresh market melons — cantaloupes, honeydews and watermelons — recorded a 2 percent increase in production acreage in 2003 at 124,300 acres, he says. On the other hand, the U.S. vegetable industry recorded an 8.5 percent increase in area harvested in 2002 and a 3.7 percent decrease in 2003. However, total production rose 4.8 percent in 2002 and fell 1.1 percent in 2003 at 1,307 million cwt.

Blueberries, says Fonsah, are a fast-emerging crop in Georgia in terms of acreage, yield and utilized production. “The future of this crop is bright. Blueberry production in Georgia has experienced a steady growth since 1955, when virtually nothing was produced to 4,500 acres in 2002.”

In 2000 and 2001, Georgia's harvested blueberry acreage peaked at 4,600 acres, he continues. Yield per acre has increased drastically from a low of 1,490 pounds in 1993 to 3,780 pounds in 2002. The best yield was recorded in 2000 at 4,130 pounds per acre.

Utilized production also experienced a tremendous increase, from 5.5 million pounds in 1993 to 17 million pounds in 2002. Again, the peak was in 2000 when utilized production was 19 million pounds.

Blueberries already rank 34th in the 2002 Georgia Agricultural Commodity rankings, says Fonsah, generating about $29.6 million, equivalent to 0.34 percent of the state's total farm gate value. This also represents a 28 percent and 34.5 percent increase, respectively, in farm gate value compared to 2001 and 2000. Presently, blueberry production stands at 8,054 acres compared to 6,639 acres in 2001.

Other important tree and nut crops in Georgia include peaches, pecans and apples, according to Fonsah. Although pecans have been the largest fruit crop in Georgia in terms of farm gate value and ranking for the past several years, there has been a drastic decline since 2000. The value for 2002 was worse, he says, but the trend is expected to take an upward turn in the 2004 production year.

Vidalia onion production was up more than 50 percent while price was down 22 percent and total farm gate value was expected to be up by about 18 percent in 2003 compared to 2002. Watermelon production was down by about 10 percent while prices were up by about 20.7 percent. A slight increase in farm gate value in 2003 compared to 2002 is expected.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com