The first-quarter 2012 fresh-market grower price index for all vegetables is anticipated to be down by more than 40 percent compared with first quarter of 2011 and 15 percent below fourth-quarter 2011.

Imports from Mexico supply more than half of the warm-season vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, snap beans, etc.) consumed in the United States during the winter months.

Import shipments of tomatoes have been particularly strong in early 2012 as Mexican production — including greenhouse/shade-house production — continues to increase.

In the fourth quarter of 2011, imports of greenhouse tomatoes to the U.S. (from all countries) increased by more than 25 percent compared to the same period in 2010.

U.S. production of field tomatoes for the fresh market also increased, reaching more than 3 billion pounds in 2011, returning to pre-2010 levels.

USDA reports that grower prices for tomatoes were down significantly in December 2011 and the first two months of 2012, at times approaching the floor set by the suspension agreement. The suspension agreement sets a minimum price for Mexican tomatoes imported to the United States.

Given much lower shipping-point prices this winter, the January 2012 fresh-vegetable producer price index (excluding potatoes) was down by more than 40 percent below high levels reached in January 2011, and declined further between January and February 2012. The February 2012 index was more than 60 percent below February 2011.

Relatively modest decreases in the consumer price index (CPI) were reported between December 2011 and January 2012, but decreases were more notable by February 2012. The February 2012 CPI for tomatoes and lettuce were down almost 20 and 13 percent, respectively over the previous year. Since the farm value is a relatively small component of the retail value of fresh vegetables, price changes at the farm do not always result in a corresponding change at retail.

According to the USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service’s Market News, advertised retail prices at major supermarket outlets for fresh tomatoes have also dropped in early 2012, by approximately 10 percent.

Exceptions are specialty organic heirloom varieties, although the premiums between organic and nonorganic tomatoes have narrowed as tomato volumes increase.

National average advertised prices for selected vegetables during February 2012 were:

•Asparagus fell almost 15 percent from a year earlier to $2.11 per pound;

• Green beans declined 15.5 percent to $1.47 per pound;

• Cabbage dropped almost 20 percent to 46 cents per pound;

• Baby carrots were down less than 2 percent to $1.36 per pound;

• Celery fell by more than 15 percent to $1.19 per pound;

• Sweet corn dropped by 20 percent to 44 cents per ear;

• Cucumbers decreased by almost 6 percent to 66 cents each;

• Iceberg lettuce fell by almost 2 percent to $1.07 per head;

• Zucchini squash was up by 5 percent to $1.48 per pound;

• Round field-grown tomatoes were down by more than 14 percent to $1.01 per pound;

• Hothouse tomatoes on the vine dropped by more than 15 percent to $2.05 per pound;

• Green bell peppers were down by 5 percent to $1.34 per pound.

(For information related to the increase in vegetable acreage last fall, see U.S. fresh vegetable acreage increases for fall 2011.

phollis@farmpress.com