Excluding asparagus, onions and melons, fresh-market area for harvest for 11 selected vegetables was forecast to rise 1 percent to 199,100 acres this spring, according to USDA’s latest Vegetables and Melons Outlook report. The spring period covers roughly from April through June.

Prospective planting area was up for seven of the 11 crops, with the greatest percentage gains for snap beans, cucumbers and cabbage. California, which accounts for more than half of spring vegetable area, expects to harvest 1 percent fewer acres, with all of the reduction due to broccoli and carrots.

Periods of cool, wet weather slowed planting progress, crop maturity, and reduced the average size of California crops such as lettuce and cauliflower. Generally cool, wet weather across several Southern growing states, including Georgia, Florida and Texas, has had similar results for vegetable crops in these areas.

With an above-average snowpack (118 percent of average in mid-April) and above-average rainfall in some areas of central California continuing into mid-April, Central Valley irrigation water supplies will be a bit less limiting (although still historically very low) this summer, with both federal and state water allocations above the meager levels of a year ago.

In Florida, where growth of spring vegetables was slowed by periods of cool, wet and windy weather, growers expect to harvest nearly one-third of U.S. spring area for the 11 selected crops. Florida’s area is expected to rise 6 percent from a year ago due to increased area for snap beans, cucumbers and cabbage.

Florida growers expect to harvest fewer acres of sweet corn, tomatoes, and bell peppers — crops which collectively account for about two-thirds of the state’s spring vegetable area. Area for tomatoes, which annually accounts for about one-third of Florida’s $1.4 billion in vegetable cash receipts, is expected to decline to 15,800 acres reflecting both weak demand from the foodservice industry and strong competition from imports and hothouse tomatoes.

Florida vegetable growers continue to recover from both the long period of freezing weather experienced this past winter and an unusually cool spring. Cooler-than-normal temperatures have delayed the maturity and marketing of Florida’s spring vegetable crop. As a result, it may be early May before shipments for several crops (such as green peppers and tomatoes) begin to approach seasonal norms for the spring.

The freeze-induced high prices of the winter season are also slowly easing for warm-season vegetables such as green beans, sweet corn and squash. Smaller supplies resulted in upward pressure on most fresh-market shipping-point prices during the January-March quarter. As a result, winter-quarter farm prices (prices received at the point of first sale) for fresh-market vegetables jumped 16 percent from the relatively high (and also freeze-affected) levels of a year earlier.

With Florida fresh-vegetable shipment volume generally less than half of the average of the past three years, preliminary national winter fresh-market vegetable shipment volume (domestic plus import) was estimated to be down 8 percent from a year earlier. The decline in domestic output was mitigated by increased imports (largely from Mexico) which helped to offset a substantial portion of the missing Florida crop.

Meanwhile, winter fresh-market vegetable shipments from California and Arizona were about average. In general, stronger winter (January through March) market volume for crops such as cauliflower and leaf lettuce was outweighed by reduced shipments for tomatoes, radishes, sweet corn, snap beans and cabbage.

The yield on California’s early spring lettuce crops in both Huron and Salinas was reported to be noticeably lower. For head and romaine lettuce, smaller heads (due to lack of sunlight and warmth) resulted in a greater share of the pack featuring 30 heads per 50-pound box instead of the standard 24 heads per box. Virtually all lettuce supplies transitioned from the Huron area in the central San Joaquin Valley to the Salinas Valley of Monterey County during the last week of April.

Assuming improved growing weather for the remainder of the spring, crop yields should slowly bounce back from their below-average early spring levels. Low yields and seasonally declining imports could keep upward pressure on some vegetable markets through mid-May. As a result, U.S. spring-season grower/shipper prices for commercial fresh vegetables are expected to average moderately above those of a year earlier.

Grower/shipper prices this spring are expected to average lower for crops such as sweet corn, lettuce and cauliflower while averaging higher for onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com