Per capita consumption of all vegetables and melons is expected to increase 1 percent to 445 pounds in 2003 — up about 6 pounds from last year, according to the latest Vegetables and Melons Outlook issued by the USDA Economic Research Service.

The gains, according to the report, are expected to be spread across fresh and processing items, led by potatoes, tomatoes and sweet corn. In 2002, per capita vegetable and melon use fell about 2 pounds to 439 pounds, as lower fresh-market vegetable and potato consumption outweighed increased canning and freezing use.

Despite the decline in total fresh-market use in 2002, fresh-market tomatoes reached a record-high 18.3 pounds per person. Meanwhile, cucumber, onion and cantaloupe use were the second highest on record.

A cool, wet spring in many areas of the United States slowed growth and disrupted harvest schedules, leading to sporadic weekly “feast or famine” supply situations for many vegetable and melon crops.

With volume curtailed at times this past spring, shipping-point prices during April-May averaged well above a year earlier for several commodities, including onions (April prices reached a record-high), head lettuce, snap beans, cauliflower, broccoli and asparagus.

Lower prices were noted for sweet corn, tomatoes, carrots and celery. Higher second-quarter prices for fresh-market vegetables stand in contrast to the plummeting prices of the first quarter.

With good supplies and fewer weather disruptions in growing areas this past winter, shipping-point prices fell back to trend levels after the record-high of a year ago.

Prior to weakening in April and May, fresh-market tomato prices averaged above a year earlier each month since last November. Given little change in shipment volume, these sustained higher prices likely were driven by demand - not surprising since per capita use of tomatoes continues to trend higher from 2002's record-high.

With shipping-point prices higher, January-April U.S. retail prices for field-grown tomatoes averaged $1.61 per pound — 20 percent more than a year earlier.

Shipping-point prices for head lettuce generally remained below $7 per 50-pound carton from January until the last week in April. At that point, a two-week gap in supplies caused by cool, wet California weather during the growing period caused lettuce volume to drop and prices to more than double before again easing in mid-May with a return to warm and dry weather.

Another spike occurred in mid-June, which also affected romaine lettuce. With shipping-point prices for head lettuce consistently low during the first quarter, retail prices averaged 69 cents per pound — the lowest first-quarter average since 1997.

With fall-storage season shipments running light due to a smaller 2002 crop and first-quarter export volume at 28 percent above a year earlier, late-winter onion markets were consistently strong entering this past spring.

With reduced area, hail and disease trimming early harvests from Texas and cool, wet weather casting a shadow in Georgia, U.S. spring-season onion markets were primed to continue the strong trend set this past winter.

In Texas, hail and disease reportedly reduced average yields for this year's spring-season crop by an estimated 20 percent. Lower yields were on top of a 20-percent reduction in area planted. With heavy rains forcing a higher percentage of the crop to be planted outside the Rio Grande Valley, shipments from Texas were expected to be heavier than normal in June. Weekly volume was running well below a year earlier until mid-May, when movement began to exceed that of 2002.

After a slow start, Georgia's Vidalia crop generally remained above the disease-shortened levels of a year earlier through June.

April-May onion shipments were down 11 percent from 2002. With strong demand from both the fresh market and processors (freezers, canners, fresh-cut products), the result was a record-high (in nominal dollars) April shipping-point price ($39.80/cwt) followed by some easing — but historically strong — prices in May. Partly because of the annual transition from the fall-season storage crop to the spring-season crop, the March-May period usually brings the chance for higher prices.

Although April was a record-high in current dollars, in constant-dollar terms, it wasn't close to being a record. For example, April 1973 saw onions reach nearly $70 per cwt as expressed in constant 1996 dollars — twice that of the deflated April 2003 level.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com