Published on 02/11/98

High Vegetable Prices, Blame it on the Rain

You might blame El Ni¤o. You might blame the grocer. But, when it comes to high vegetables prices this winter, you can definitely blame it on the rain.

"What you have to understand about vegetable supplies and prices is that things are seldom normal," said Bill Mizelle, a University of Georgia agricultural economist.

"Weather constantly affects planting, growing conditions and harvesting. This winter has been a 'normal abnormal' year," he said.

Winter vegetable supplies have been less than normal in Mexico, California and Florida because of weather problems, possibly related to El Ni¤o.

"West Mexico and Florida are the primary suppliers of tomatoes," Mizelle explained. "Planting and growing conditions were affected by unusually wet and cooler weather."

Expect tomato supplies from Mexico to remain below normal until early March. Other winter vegetables are also down. But supplies from Mexico should pick up in mid-February.

December storms in Mexico brought cold air that damaged blooms. And the major growing areas had freezes on several mornings.

Florida's winter has been one of heavy rains, and more El Ni¤o-related storms are expected.

"Central Florida received more than 15 inches of rain in December," Mizelle said, "that's twice the previous record. If more storms materialize, more winter production will be cut."

Rains could also hamper spring planting. That would keep produce in short supply even longer.

"Last winter's production was interrupted by a January freeze," he said. "Tomato prices the last week of December were $10 per 25- pound carton -- $2 higher than last year. By the last week of January, prices had dropped to $8, compared to the freeze-induced price of $14 last year."

Tomato volume to date is up slightly above last year.

Southern California and Arizona had rain and cool weather slow lettuce production.

"Yuma, Ariz., had twice the normal rainfall in 1997, much of which occurred with hurricane Nora in September," Mizelle said. "Lettuce takes four to five months to mature, and two days' planting interruption will cause a week-long void in supplies four to five months later."

Nora's effects were felt mostly in December. Winter lettuce acreage was down for this season because of poor prices in the past three years.

Shipping-point prices the last week in December were $25 for a carton of 24 heads. By the last week of January, prices declined to $4.35, about the same as last year. The volume last week was about 15 percent higher than last year's. However, the volume to date is 5 percent lower than in 1997, Mizelle said.

In Georgia, the rain isn't disrupting harvesting, but soil preparation.

"Most of our vegetables aren't in the ground now," said Darbie Granberry, an extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But it's been too wet to get into the field to work the soil to prepare it for planting spring crops. That can make us late planting."

One of Georgia's most famous crops, Vidalia onions are in the ground and look pretty good, said Reid Torrance, a Tattnall County extension agent.

"They can tolerate a lot of water," he said. "I'm amazed how well they recover with just a few days of sunshine."

Onions planted late in the season, within the past month, are suffering the most. "They haven't had a break in the weather, especially in temperature, to recover from transplant shock," Torrance said.

Many crops planted from transplants, rather than seeds, need an adjustment time to adapt from the greenhouse to the field.

"They look amazingly good, for what they've been through," Torrance said. The proof will be in the harvest, which beings in late April.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.