Calling a vegetable season challenging is like calling a blizzard cold — it sort of goes without saying. That has been the story for the Georgia vegetable industry over the past year.
While the spring season was decent in many cases, and the fall crop has been average at best, there were many situations that growers faced which had great impacts on their season as a whole.
Certainly, not the least of these challenges was the salmonella scare in the tomato industry. While Georgia tomatoes were never implicated in the scare and were declared safe early, the entire scenario crushed the tomato market for the whole industry. It took what seemed like an eternity for officials to settle the issue and by the time the smoke had cleared, consumer confidence in tomatoes was virtually non-existent and tomato prices were in the tank.
Many growers had to walk away from literally hundreds of boxes of tomatoes left on the vine because prices were so low it wasn't profitable to pick them. The sad part about it was that many growers had some of the best tomato crops they had ever grown. As a result of the spring scare, many growers scaled back tomato acreage in the fall due to fears that consumers had still not regained enough confidence to buy tomatoes.
However, even before the season was under way, it was clear that vegetable growers were going to be facing the highest production costs in history. Fertilizer, fuel, fumigants, plastic mulch, pollination services and labor prices were at record highs. Many of these increases were due to the record-high oil prices.
Fertilizer prices were affected not only by oil prices, but also because an increasing amount of our fertilizer supply is being imported (50 percent of nitrogen and 90 percent of potash). There is higher demand for fertilizer on a global scale and increased acreages of other crops, primarily corn for ethanol, have increased competition for fertilizer resources and pushed prices to an all time high. Also, the increased costs of transportation, greater security measures, and liability concerns have all added to fertilizer costs.
Then, throw in the highest fuel prices in history. This impacted the cost of many inputs as well as transportation costs for moving produce into the market. It also raised the cost of running trucks, tractors and other farm equipment.
Methyl bromide prices continued to skyrocket as supplies declined under the phase-out process. However, growers also learned this year that many potential replacements for methyl bromide are now under scrutiny by EPA. The agency has proposed a whole host of new regulations and buffer zone restrictions that may all but eliminate use of some fumigants in the future.
Growers who rely on honeybees to pollinate their crops also saw that cost reach much higher levels. This is in part due to the loss of so many honeybee colonies over the last two years. Colony Collapse Disorder continues to plague the bee industry and thus hive rental has skyrocketed. Fortunately, hives in the Southeast continue to be available and are less costly than in other parts of the country.
Labor continues to be an issue and a major cost. The minimum wage increased this past summer and that alone will undoubtedly push labor costs even higher. Growers are still awaiting passage of immigration legislation that could possibly bring some relief in this area. In general, spring prices were fairly decent. The fall crop has not been quite as lucrative.
Food safety issues, production costs, labor and the loss of fumigant materials will continue to be issues growers must face as they head into 2009.
Although fuel prices have moderated for now, there is still uncertainty about where they will go in the future. There is no question that 2009 will offer its own challenges, it only remains to be seen what they will be. Georgia growers have survived another season and look to the spring with the hope that only a farmer can muster.