(Nov. 23) Florida vegetable crops hit hard by Hurricane Wilma in late October will begin to bounce back in early December as squash and cucumber supplies become more available, but tomato and bell pepper supplies will be limited through the end of the year, and the corn crop is almost nonexistent.

Growers who scrambled to replant after the Oct. 24 storm will be harvesting cucumbers and squash in good supplies by mid-December, and beans were already coming back into supply in late November, said Jaye Bedsole, salesman for Southern Corporate Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla.

Cucumber prices were already beginning to slip the week of Nov. 21, Bedsole said, as Mexican imports arrived, and other shippers attributed softening of some vegetable markets to the typical inactivity during the short work week before Thanksgiving. The high end of the cucumber market dropped from $24-28 in mid-November for a 1 1/9-bushel carton to $20-22 on Nov. 22, Bedsole said.

Hurricane Wilma hit LaBelle, Clewiston and Belle Glade, where the state’s sweet corn crop was left in shambles. Other effected areas included Homestead and the Indian River citrus-growing region. On Nov. 21, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary Chuck Conner toured Miami-Dade County growing operations. The county’s cooperative extension service, which covers Homestead crops, reported Wilma caused $15 million in fruit and vegetable crop losses, with an extra $12 in tropical fruit losses.

Tomato and vegetable harvests continued in the Palmetto-Ruskin area in late November, and shippers reported lowered yields and quality there. When the harvest winds down in mid-December, the tight tomato market will see even fewer supplies. The harvest there typically peaks near Thanksgiving, but volumes had already begun to wane in the week before that, said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, Maitland. Homestead’s supplies will be limited, he said.

The tomato market hit $40 for a 25-pound carton of mature greens after last year’s quartet of hurricanes swept through Florida, but shippers said those f.o.b.s are unlikely this season. Damage to tomato crops came later during the season and hit fields that will be ready in December and January, but product was still available in Quincy and will be followed by tomatoes from northern Mexico, Brown said.

“We are continuing to get some tomatoes in the Palmetto area,” Brown said. “Where we’re going to see the real problem is the crop that normally went into the late fall, the early winter deal, that’s where the crop really got hammered.”

On the state’s other coast, Lee, Hendry and Collier counties (which include Immokalee and Naples production), bell peppers and tomatoes had 90% loss, said Arthur Ellis, produce broker for Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers. Ellis said tomato prices will likely climb through the end of the year, but they probably won’t top $30.

“That’s simply because of the timing,” Ellis said. “Depending on the weather, (Palmetto-Ruskin) will still have product until the middle of December, and by that time, Mexico should be crossing some, which will take a little bit of pressure off.”

Bell pepper markets will also depend on Mexico’s supplies, he said, but cucumbers had started to bounce back by the third week of November with Plant City and central Florida production.

Jumbo bell peppers are expected to be in short supply through the end of the year, said Jim Monteith, sales manager at Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee. That market in December has the potential to climb past the $38 being quoted on Nov. 22, Monteith said.