Business

Cold weather brings higher prices for veggies


Jack Li harvests lettuce grown at the Student Agricultural Gardens on the University of Florida campus. The cold weather snap is causing a hike in the price of vegetables.

Erica Brough/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 10:06 p.m.

Green bean prices have tripled in North Florida. Mustard greens are hard to find at any price. Cabbage is now going for 69 cents a pound, way more than the three-pounds-for-$1 usually available in January.

The hikes in fresh vegetable prices are the most obvious signs for many Floridians that the exceptionally cold weather this winter has taken a big bite out of the produce supply chain.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated 2.5 million cartons or cases of fruits and vegetables were lost during December — not including processed citrus. Officials said another 4 million cartons of produce are expected to be lost before the end of March.

Those losses translate into more than $150 million on lost cash sales so far, according to agriculture department spokesman Sterling Ivey.

In an e-mail last Thursday morning, Ivey also said that the total losses between December and March will likely top $150 million in cash sales losses, which will result in total economic losses of $370 million. The total estimated losses include expenses for items like labor and fuel that are needed to grow a crop.

Some of the heaviest losses have been reported by those growing bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and sweet corn. The preliminary estimates show nearly a million bushels of bell peppers alone were lost to the cold.

Ivey said his agency will take another close look at recovery and production rates later this month. County-by-county breakdowns of losses are not expected for a few more months.

Extension Agent Barton Wilder of Alachua County Agriculture and Natural Resources said some of the blame for this winter's crop problems also goes to the unseasonably hot weather during the fall.

"If you remember, we had a lot of hot weather this fall — it was hot when a lot of people were planting (winter) vegetables and so they got very poor stands to begin with," Wilder said. Then, the vegetable crop was stressed further by the cold in December and by rain and cold this month.

Wilder estimated that locally about 50 percent of the mustard greens, 40 percent of collards, 64 percent of beans and 30 percent of cauliflower have been destroyed by the weather.

Kathy Graham of Graham Farms in Brooker said the weather over the past several weeks has "been like a roller coaster ride." First there would be a freeze and then rain and then another freeze and more rain.

So what survived at Graham Farms?

"The plants in the greenhouses," Graham said. "Anything outside that did not get frozen out just didn't know what to do — it was stunned and stunted. Those vegetables just got stuck and really didn't grow much more."

Graham said the broccoli and cauliflower heads that froze might have survived had they not been rained on immediately after thawing, because then the vegetables just soured in the fields.

At Ward's Supermarket in Gainesville, produce manager Craig Smouse said his goal is still to offer as much locally grown produce as possible, but it is difficult because the prices have just "jumped, jumped and jumped" because of supply and demand.

"If you can find green beans, they are $60 a bushel instead of $20 or $30 like usual at this time of year," Smouse said. "Right now we should be getting everything — all the produce — from Florida, but that just won't happen this year."

State agriculture officials said the damage estimates will likely grow even larger before the winter growing season ends in March.

The size of the losses concern state officials because agriculture, including animals and plants, is Florida's second largest industry — behind tourism — and has a total annual economic impact on the state of just over $100 billion, officials said.

A major crop that sustained relatively minimal damage is the strawberry crop. Officials said strawberries are very cold-tolerant and can usually be protected from the cold by misting or watering. Also, some cold weather is desirable, according to berry growers, because it tends to sweeten strawberries as they near maturity. Initial estimates show berry growers probably lost about 25,000 cases out of the approximately 19 million that will be grown this season.

The cold weather that caused significant crop damages was record-setting, according to the National Weather Service, something that growers said became obvious in early December.

"The freezes don't usually start until about January but the real cold started earlier and was deeper this year and what did not get killed got hurt by at least one of the freezes," said Curtis Davis of Davis Farms in Alachua.

According to Jason Hess, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Jacksonville, it was the second-coldest December on record in Alachua County and "the coldest December throughout Northern Florida."

Karen Voyles is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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