MIAMI — The prolonged cold freeze that lingered over Florida recently did considerable damage to winter fruit and vegetable crops, which will ultimately result in higher prices at retail.
While it's still too early to estimate exact dollar and crop loss, industry experts agreed that lower yields will make for higher fruit and vegetable prices.
Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable expert for the University of Florida, told the New York Times that prior to the freeze, wholesale prices for winter tomatoes were down around $14 for a 25-pound box; now they are up over $20. Peppers were about $8 per box shortly after New Year's; now they're up around $18.
“Prices have even gone up, from what I understand,” McAvoy told SN when asked if those numbers were still accurate.
“Tomatoes, peppers, the numbers I gave, they're probably higher now, but I couldn't tell you exactly how high. I don't track them as closely as maybe a grower would, but I heard the other day that green beans, which were at about $18, were up into the $40 range.”
McAvoy said he was sure the wholesale price spikes have already begun to translate to retail markups.
“I've already seen in our local supermarkets in Florida, squash — yellow squash, for instance — it was selling for 99 cents a pound three weeks ago and it was up to $1.99 a pound when I went in there yesterday,” he said.
“You're going to see that, and a reduction in quality as well. Some of the stuff that did survive still gets damage by the cold. The shelf life and the quality are going to be down, at least in the short term.”
McAvoy's estimate of $100 million in vegetable losses, quoted by the Times article, was a very conservative estimate, McAvoy told SN.
“It will be at least $100 million in losses, at the minimum,” McAvoy explained.
“My estimate was based on about 20% of the crop for the year and just putting numbers on those. In southwest Florida for instance, we grow about 20,000 acres of tomatoes. If you take 20% of that is 4,000. It costs about $15,000 to grow an acre of tomatoes, so start doing the math and there you have $60 million already, then you start adding the green peppers, the eggplants, the green beans — it starts adding up real quick.”
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., expects higher prices on many of its fruits and vegetables, and insufficient supply has it planning to source some produce items from other states, spokeswoman Maria Brous told SN.
“We are, and have been, working closely with all our suppliers to keep abreast of the situation,” Brous said.
Its suppliers are telling Publix that the outlook is grim for strawberries, Redland Raised row crops, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.
“The entire crop in Hendry County is gone,” Brous said about Florida green peppers. “This is where all our winter pepper is now coming from and with temperatures in the mid-20s for over four hours the crop is gone.
“We will source California and Mexico for our green pepper needs. Pepper prices are sure to increase significantly due to the additional costs of bringing product in from further away, availability, etc.”
Brous added that Publix expects to see a greatly reduced crop of Florida tomatoes, and has already seen increased prices on tangerines, but that oranges have remained the same for now.
The worst hit crops included tomatoes and peppers, McAvoy told SN — “all your warm season crops, things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers and squash.
“Your cool season crops — things like broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, your various greens, beets, radishes — there was some cosmetic damage to some of those, but there wasn't that much damage to those types of crops, so they're going to pull through. And a lot of the greens, salad crops especially, they're mainly grown in California, southern Arizona, so they were not affected. Where you're going to see the [price] spikes is going to be with those warm season vegetables.”
At this point, strawberries appear to have fared better than the vegetables and fish, because at least those plants have endured to bloom again, Ted Campbell, executive director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, Fla., told SN.
“It was longer and colder than anyone here has ever experienced,” Campbell said. “So the ultimate response from the plants is still a guess — we could lose productivity due to cold stress, or they could begin blooming like crazy this week when it warms into the 70s and become very bountiful.”
Farmers were up for 12 consecutive, freezing nights monitoring irrigation systems in their attempts to save the crop, Campbell said.
“It's too early to assess overall damages, but the most obvious losses were isolated areas which experienced equipment malfunctions [such as] temporary pump malfunctions or sprinkler failure,” he said.
Approximately 90% of Florida's citrus crops are used to make orange juice, and citrus crops also suffered some fruit, twig and leaf damage.
“Now the concern is whether we had long-term tree damage, so there's kind of a couple levels here,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland.
“Tree damage is the worst because it obviously affects your trees' ability to produce future crops, but we will not know that for possibly weeks until growers can get out there and see how the trees have responded.”
Meadows told SN that there are several hundred million gallons of inventory in tank farms there in Florida at the processing plant, which will work to their favor if there is a disruption in production.
Meanwhile, temperatures have been returning to warmer seasonal norms.
“Farmers are already planting back and should see a resumption of normal supplies later in the spring,” McAvoy said. “Six weeks for your items like cucumbers, squash and green beans. Ten or 11 weeks for tomatoes and all of that.”