U.S. fresh-market area for harvest for 11 selected vegetables was forecast to decline by 4 percent to 194,200 acres this spring, largely April through June, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

Prospective area was down for eight of the 11 crops, with the greatest percentage declines for cauliflower, cabbage and carrots.

California, which accounts for more than half of spring vegetable area, expects to harvest 6 percent fewer acres, with much of the reduction occurring in carrots, broccoli and head lettuce crops. Although scarce and more costly this year, water is not expected to be a limiting factor in fresh-market vegetable supplies this spring.

Early April weather was on the cool, damp side in central California growing areas and followed a period of cool temperatures in the Salinas area and a light early-March frost in the San Joaquin Valley. Cool temperatures delayed crop development, with some vegetables a week or two behind schedule. Otherwise, weather was average during the growing season in California with few pest or disease problems noted.

Although irrigation water in the Central Valley of California will be even more limited this year than last, and the cost of water may be higher, the impact on spring fresh vegetable acreage, supplies and prices is expected to be small. Although water is limited, acreage is lower and yields may be reduced in the early spring growing area around Bakersfield-Huron. However, water supplies are expected to be sufficient over the brief four to six-week growing season in this area.

Precipitation and temperatures were below normal in Florida this past winter and early plantings of spring vegetables got off to a slow start due to frost in February. As a result, the spring vegetable crop is generally maturing a bit later than usual.

Normal spring volume may be delayed a week or two due to the effects of cool temperatures, which may result in price spikes through early May.

Florida growers expect to harvest one-third of the spring area for the 11 selected crops. Florida's area is expected to decline 1 percent from a year ago as increased area for tomatoes (up 12 percent) and bell peppers (up 1 percent) is outweighed by reductions for all other crops.

Area for tomatoes, which annually accounts for about one-third of Florida's $1.6 billion in vegetable cash receipts, is expected to increase after sinking to its lowest since 2000.

Area for harvest for the three top melon crops is forecast to decline by 3 percent to 65,300 acres this spring. Acreage is expected to decline for all three melons, with cantaloupes expected to exhibit the greatest decline. All of the reduction in cantaloupe area will come from Arizona where area is down 12 percent to 10,500 acres — the smallest spring area since 2003.

Lower prices for imported melons this winter and anticipation of weaker demand, especially from foodservice clients, may lie behind a portion of the acreage cuts, especially for watermelon since farm prices and use have generally been trending higher the past few years. The domestic spring melon crop accounts for about one-third of annual U.S. melon acreage, while the summer crop accounts for more than half of all melon acreage.

This spring, Florida, which accounts for one-third of spring melon area, expects to harvest 1 percent fewer acres than a year ago, while California (22 percent of spring melon area) is projected to harvest 2 percent fewer acres. Meanwhile, Texas (17 percent of spring melon area) is forecast to harvest 1 percent more area with the gain spread between watermelon and cantaloupes.

Due to supply gaps caused by earlier freeze damage, sweet corn prices exceeded 60 cents per pound in March, double the average for that month over the previous three years. With recovery in supplies expected in late April, prices should begin to ease.

Sweet corn area for harvest is expected to drop 5 percent in Florida, although the relatively dry weather over the growing season should yield good quality and yields this spring.

Per capita use of fresh-market sweet corn has been trending higher over the past several years thanks to higher quality brought about by improved varieties and better handling.

Given adequate domestic supplies, average import supplies, and continued sluggish demand due to the weak economy, U.S. spring-season grower/shipper prices for commercial fresh vegetables are expected to average at or below a year earlier.

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