(Dec. 10) BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Florida’s celery season will start the week of Dec. 15, and the state’s main grower is reporting that prospects look good.

At the same time, California shippers aren’t seeing the typical dramatic post-Thanksgiving dip in prices as they gear up for Christmas shipments.

“It’s in excellent shape,” said Dan Mathis, Florida vegetable sales manager for A. Duda & Sons Inc., Oviedo. “The yields will be good, and the quality will be excellent.”

The celery, grown in greenhouses and transplanted to fields near Belle Glade, will harvest through May 10, Mathis said.

Florida’s production is second to California, but Michigan produces more fresh-market celery. Mathis said Duda’s processing capabilities mitigated the small amount of problems associated with the colder temperatures last spring.

Prices were lower for Florida product last season, he said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first reported f.o.b.s of last season, on Jan. 6, put cartons of two dozen at $6.75, 24-count cartons of hearts in film bags at $9.75 and 18-count heart film bags at $8.75.

In March, prices for cartons of 2½ dozen rose to $10.25, but prices on bunches rarely broke $10. The season’s last price report, in late May, had cartons of 2, 2½, and 3 dozen bunches at $7.75, and 24-count cartons of hearts were $12.75.

On Dec. 8, the USDA reported Santa Maria, Calif., shipments were decreasing. Prices were $8.25-10.35 for cartons of two dozen, $6.20-8.35 for cartons of three dozen and $5.20-6.25 for four dozen. In California’s southern district, f.o.b.s were $8.10-9.35 for cartons of two dozen and $5.85-6.35 for cartons of 3 and 4 dozen.

At the same time last year, California celery was $4.75-6.25 for cartons of two dozen and $4-6.60 for cartons of three and four dozen.

Oxnard is in Ventura County, the heart of California’s celery production area, growing 44% of the state’s celery in 2002, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

Demand has been fairly steady, even after the annual Thanksgiving volume spike, said Mark Goss, general manager of Cal-Cel Marketing Inc., Oxnard.

“Prices are holding in there,” Goss said. “I wouldn’t say there’s a big die-off like usual.”

In Santa Maria, supplies are lighter, said Jim Philson, sales manager at Apio Inc., Guadalupe.

“Everything was off the week after Thanksgiving and demand pretty much lightened up, but it’s come right back for the Christmas pull,” Philson said. “Our supplies will be normal through Christmas and we’ll go all the way through March from Santa Maria and the Lompoc Valley.”