The U.S. fresh-market vegetable area for harvest is forecast to rise 4 percent to 185,200 acres for the 2003 winter season, which runs mostly from January through March, according to the recent USDA Vegetable and Melons Outlook

California, which continues to hold 41 percent of the selected winter vegetable area, expects to harvest 4 percent more area this winter, led by broccoli, cauliflower and iceberg lettuce. Arizona, which harvests 28 percent of the winter area — largely lettuce — also expects to harvest 4 percent more winter area this year.

In Florida, where one-fourth of domestic winter vegetables are grown, harvested area is expected to be up 2 percent. Although cabbage area in Florida was steady and sweet corn was down slightly, prospective area was up for other selected crops, including snap beans, bell peppers and tomatoes.

Texas acreage is up 9 percent this winter, led by cabbage and spinach. Texas harvests 7 percent of U.S. winter vegetable area.

First-quarter market prices for most fresh vegetables are expected to average well below the weather-driven highs of one year ago. After an early January spike, prices moved much lower into mid-February. Generally, commercial vegetable prices this winter have remained below year-ago levels despite periods of freezing temperatures in Florida during Jan. 23-28. Imports, mostly from Mexico, appear to have filled in the supply gaps caused by cold temperatures and slowing crop maturity in Florida.

Following a December heat wave that accelerated crop growth in the desert growing areas, most leafy vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower are back on schedule after a bout with cool weather in February. Supplies of these crops were heavy, and shipping-point prices were at very low levels during mid-January to February, with temporary spikes in mid-February.

Unlike warm-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers from Florida, alternative import sources are more limited for cool-season crops like lettuce and celery because U.S. supplies are generally plentiful and prices too low to attract significant import competition.

Planted area for spring-season onions is expected to decline 12 percent this year to 34,400 acres. Planted acreage is down in three of the four reporting states, with Texas — down 23 percent — expecting the largest decline.

Acreage in the Rio Grande Valley — the traditional onion-growing area — was reduced by half due to excessive rain during planting time (plus a general shortage of irrigation water), with some of the area moving into the Winter Garden-Coastal Bend growing areas. Although yields may improve from last year, production in Texas is expected to decline.

While planted area in Georgia is expected to be down 5 percent, harvested area could rise. Before the January cold snap, which may have damaged some foliage, harvested area in Georgia was projected to rise 17 percent from a year ago.

In 2002, extreme cold in February and excessive heat in April combined with a fast-spreading fungal disease to force 22 percent of Georgia’s Vidalia onion acreage to be plowed under. Assuming minor damage to Georgia’s crop and improved yields in both Georgia and Texas, spring onion production could exceed the short 2002 crop of 9.7 million cwt, despite reduced plantings.

In early February, USDA’s Market News Service reported an increase in exports from the Pacific Northwest to Japan and Korea which helped to strengthen market prices. There also were reports of exports from Idaho-Eastern Oregon to Mexico at a time when Mexico traditionally is exporting sizable volume to the United States. Demand for onions has been strong in Mexico this year, which may limit the traditional seasonal surge in imports from Mexico this winter.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com