An unusually long period of freezing temperatures struck deep into Florida’s winter vegetable growing areas during early to mid-January, reducing supplies and raising prices, according to the latest Vegetables and Melons Outlook Report from USDA.

During the typical winter months, January through March, Florida accounts for 34 percent of the shipments of the top seven warm-season vegetables. These include tomatoes, bell peppers, snap beans, cucumbers, sweet corn, squash and eggplant.

In mid-February, volume from Florida was a fraction — 10 to 30 percent — of normal, while shipments from Mexico were partially offsetting, running 40 to 50 percent higher than a year earlier. With the exception of higher prices for green beans and tomatoes, the additional imports plus weather-impairment, demand during February appears to have helped keep retail prices near levels of a year earlier.

In Florida, evening and early morning temperatures dipped below freezing over the course of about 10 days during Jan. 2-13, with the coldest readings since December 1989 recorded on Jan 11. Consecutive daily record lows were recorded across the state and as far south as Miami on Jan 10-11.

Despite efforts to protect crops, thousands of acres of tender, warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, green beans and peppers were heavily damaged or destroyed. Some growers covered younger plants and these managed to survive. Prices had begun to rise prior to the killing freezes since the cold weather that prevailed for two weeks had virtually stopped plant growth, slowing harvest volume. Growers harvested and stored as much product as possible prior to the killing freezes and marketed this following the freeze events.

Sixty of Florida’s 67 counties (including all areas where winter fresh produce is grown) were declared natural disaster areas by USDA on Jan. 29.

A year ago, a severe freeze during Jan. 20-22 damaged Florida winter vegetables, reducing volume and raising prices for crops such as green beans, sweet corn and tomatoes. This year, damage was much more severe because of the extended duration of the cold weather pattern.

The impact of the cold was especially acute in the major Gulf Coast vegetable areas around Immokalee and Belle Glade. In addition to complete destruction of entire fields, the surviving plants faced harvest delays (due to lack of growth and loss of blooms during the cold stretch), vine and foliage damage (leading to reduced yields and increased disease susceptibility), and fruit scarring (leading to lower grade fruit and reduced value).

Industry estimates suggest about two-thirds of the tomato crop in the major southwestern production region was destroyed along with the majority of the green beans, sweet corn and squash. Although reduced supplies of warm season crops such as tomatoes and peppers will be available from protected fields and other areas of Florida where damage was somewhat less (the Homestead area and the East Coast around Palm Beach), it will likely be sometime in late March before volume begins to approach the usual scale, assuming no further freezes or large-scale incidents.

During the three previous years (2007-09), Florida’s annual fresh-market vegetable production had a shipping-point (farm) value of about $1.4 billion. Although the winter season accounts for about one-third of the annual volume of the major vegetables, prices generally average higher due to the greater risks (largely weather-related) involved in winter production.

Assuming 65 percent of average production was lost, valued at average prices over the past three years, the estimated freeze loss at the shipping point for the top seven warm-season vegetables would be about $300 million, with tomatoes accounting for about half.

Texas vegetable growers in the Rio Grande Valley around McAllen were also impacted by freezing weather. That area usually produces leafy crops (cabbage, leaf lettuce, spinach, celery, swiss chard) and various root vegetables like table beets and onions.

Most of these crops are hardier, cool-season crops which may be able to recover from damaging frosts, depending on the stage of growth. Although the Texas 1015 sweet onion harvest does not begin until March, other winter crops are harvested on a continuous basis until the heat of spring brings the season to a close. These crops experienced a harvest gap of several weeks until growth resumed.

California and Arizona also received some unusual winter weather in January in the form of a series of heavy El Nino-inspired rain storms. Although much of the impact was expected to be felt in coastal areas, the major desert growing regions received several inches of rain (equaling the average for an entire year in a matter of hours). This disrupted harvest, slowed marketing, and raised leafy green vegetable prices for several days as equipment became mired in muddy fields. The majority of winter leafy and cruciferous crops are grown in the area surrounding Yuma, Arizona and El Centro, Calif.

USDA also reports that onion growers intend to plant 28,000 acres of onions for the 2010 spring-season harvest — down 2 percent from the same-state totals reported a year earlier. Most of these onions are of the non-pungent (sweet varieties such as Vidalia and Texas 1015), which command a higher price (and higher production costs) than the typical pungent storage onion that makes up the majority of the onions produced in the country.

The crop, which is already in the ground, has been subject to very cold temperatures in both Georgia and Texas, with some damaged foliage reported in Texas (which may slow crop growth for several weeks). In reducing onion area, growers were reacting to both lower returns a year ago (due in part to high production costs) and the relatively low onion prices received earlier this winter.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com