(Oct. 26) In spite of the sometimes-violent caprices of nature, shippers insist there will be ample supplies for Thanksgiving menus this year.

Just don’t count on Florida for consistent supplies, after Hurricane Wilma swept across the state Oct. 24.

Wilma delivered a harder hit to growers than did any of the state’s four major hurricanes last year, said Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“The storms came through last year much earlier on the production cycle,” Stuart said Oct. 26. “Virtually every grower in the state was in some state of production with this storm. This storm, coming Oct. 24, it’s just extremely late for Florida, so it’s a blow.”

Supply gaps in beans, tomatoes, peppers and perhaps sweet corn can be expected, Stuart said.

“In the Homestead area, which is typically going to come on in December, you’ve got a situation where we were probably 75% to 80% planted,” he said. “But the plants were very young, so we’ve got a similar situation down here that we had last year in central Florida, with Charlie, where you basically had a lot of land prep done and you had some very young plants in the ground.

“You may have some significant damage to the point where they’re going to have to go back in and reset the rows, refumigate, which, again, is a time-consuming process. So, it’s going to set you back a minimum of a couple of weeks and maybe three or four.”

Virtually all vegetable production took stunning blows from Wilma, said Daniel Raulerson, FFVA’s director of marketing and international trade, who toured the vegetable-production region Oct. 25.

“As far as tomatoes and peppers, everything has been affected 100%,” he said. “As far as what has been totally wiped out, we’re not exactly clear on that yet because we’re waiting on the plants’ reaction to the cool weather as well as the damage received from the storm.”

NORTH CAROLINA

Sweet potato supplies will be strong enough to meet demands, said George Wooten, owner and president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“It appears that there should be adequate supplies from North Carolina and all regions from the U.S.,” said Wooten, whose company has growing operations in North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Retailers are preparing to promote sweet potatoes in a variety of packaging sets, Wooten said.

“There seems to be a lot of interest in different items, including 2-pound bags, 5-pound bags, 10-pound bags and various boxes,” Wooten said. “They’re doing some bulk displays. I feel movement in retail and wholesale is up.”

SPUDS

Volumes of red and russet potatoes may be down this year for the holiday season, growers in the Red River Valley and Idaho said.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Randy Boushey, co-owner and general manager of East Grand Forks, Minn.-based red potato grower-shipper A&L Potato Co. “It’s a small crop, I’d guess 10% to 15% below average. I think there’s going to be a shortage. I think some of the sheds are going to be considerably under.”

Prices may depend on how brown-skinned spuds fare, he said.

Dick Thomas, vice president of sales for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce LLC, said lower acreage in the region would lead to a stronger market.

“It remains to be seen what size the crop is,” Thomas said.

Growers originally had predicted smaller potatoes as being the rule this season, but they have adjusted that assessment somewhat, Thomas said.

CRIMSON SHORTFALL

Supplies of fresh cranberries likely will be short, said Nick Decas, vice president of sales for Decas Bros. Sales Co. Inc., Wareham, Mass.

“The quality is very good, but the crop is very small in Massachusetts, and the availability out of the East is going to be tight,” Decas said. “I don’t know if Wisconsin can supply the whole market or not. But speaking for the Massachusetts crop, it looks like we’re going to be 20-30% down. It’s the small size of the fruit and generally not a lot of rain during the growing season. But the quality is fantastic. It’s just the quantity is just not that great.”

Prices will reflect the short supplies, Decas said.

“It’s high right now and going higher,” he said.

Cranberries from Michigan and Wisconsin should be adequate, however, said John Shelford, president of Naples, Fla.-based Global Berry Farms LLC.

“We’re probably 80% sold out right now,” he said. “People are still short, but they’re starting to get supplies covered.”

PUMPKIN TIME

Dry weather in Michigan should give pumpkins a boost this year, said Butch DeBlouw, co-owner of Mike Pirrone Produce Inc., Capac, Mich.

“This year was probably one of our best years,” he said. “The sales were there. The quality was good. When you have a year that everything is dry you don’t have any problems. We had a good mix.”

Prices are about average, DeBlouw added.

Carrots, cabbage, green beans and squash also will be plentiful, said DeBlouw, whose company grows a variety of vegetables on 9,000 acres. Prices, he said, should be about average.