(Jan. 18) The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates California’s winter celery crop will shrink 5% from last year’s 7,600 acres, but shippers still cite overproduction as a cause of stagnant f.o.b.s that dropped after a short-lived spike before Thanksgiving.

The central and southern Florida crop, however, should see a boost in demand when it’s ready in late January, because East Coast buyers won’t be paying the higher freight costs.

Prices in California for cartons of 2-, 2½- and 3-dozen bunches have been $4.35-6.35 for weeks, following a mid-November bump to $9.35-10.56 for a carton of 2 dozen in mid-November, and shippers say cartons routinely go for $4-5, which is a break-even price.

On Jan. 18, the USDA reported Oxnard f.o.b.s at $5.23-6.71 for cartons of 2 dozen, and a slight increase in 3 dozen at $4.95-5.71 and 4 dozen at $4.95-6. The early southern Florida crop f.o.b.s were significantly higher, at $8.95-10.15 for carton/crates of 2 dozen, $7.95-9.45 for 2 ½ dozen and $6.95-8.75 for 3 dozen.

“Everybody’s got a full crop,” said David Cook, sales manager of Deardorff-Jackson Co., Oxnard, Calif. “There’s been celery walked around in this district because it’s not marketable. There was no way to harvest and market it because coolers are full.”

Rick Alcocer, division vice president of fresh vegetable sales for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., Oviedo, Fla., said the weather, and not increased acreage, is the main culprit in the abundance of celery. Oxnard, which started harvest in November and will supply the majority of the nation’s crop through late June, hasn’t had any cold weather this winter. Yields and quality are higher, Alcocer said.

Recent rains in the area haven’t stopped the harvest, said Mark Goss, general manager of Cal-Cel Marketing Inc., Oxnard.

Alcocer said Duda’s Florida crop, set back a month by Hurricane Wilma Oct. 24, will be shipping in late January. Although some celery was ready on time in early January, Alcocer said the quality wasn’t good enough to ship.

“You should see very good demand for Florida celery because you will probably have a minimum per-case advantage of $2-3 from the West Coast, which is tremendous,” Alcocer said.

Come spring, that gap could widen, he said, because freight rates tend to rise as more production areas begin shipping.

Shippers said they expect a bump in demand, and hopefully celery f.o.b.s, at Easter (April 16), but lower-than-average markets for a number of vegetables, from broccoli to cauliflower and green onions, is troubling California vegetable shippers now, Deardorff-Jackson’s Cook said.

“Easter, to me, that’s a lifetime away at this rate,” he said. “It’s a real disaster, marketwise.”