Supplies of freeze-damaged Mexican vegetables could reach their lowest levels in March, importers said.

Mexican vegetable prices drop, shortages still expected

Courtesy Al Harrison Co.

Prices of many Mexican vegetables dropped in mid-February, but the worst shortages could hit in March.

Mid-February markets, meanwhile, were weaker than immediately after the freeze — though still very strong on some items.

Nogales, Ariz.-based Al Harrison Co. lost 85 to 99% of its open-field tomatoes, bell peppers, yellow squash, beans and eggplant, said Brent Harrison, president. Shade house losses ranged from 60% to 80%, he said.

“The valley (in Culiacan, Sinaloa) used to be green, and now it’s brown,” Harrison said. “It’s pretty sad.”

Volumes of Mexican hardshell squash, one of Al Harrison Co.’s top commodities, should be 30% to 40% lower into May, Harrison said.

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce lost an estimated 50% to 60% of its remaining Sinaloa tomato crop, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

Young plants, many of which were set to begin producing in mid-March, were hit the worst, Munger said.

As a result, the biggest gap for the company will likely occur in late March and early April, before production switches to Baja California.

There could actually be an increase in tomato production in the second half of February, as growers scramble to get as much ripe product harvested as possible, Munger said, resulting in a wide range in quality.

On Feb. 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $10.95-16.95  for two-layer cartons of 4x4 Mexican vine-ripe tomatoes, down from $24-26.95 on Feb. 10.

Prices of bell peppers and other vegetables will likely be high through late February to-mid March, said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Coachella, Calif.-based Prime Time International LLC.

“We’re getting all sorts of different reports, but the long-term damage is going to be significant,” he said.

Beginning about Feb. 16, bell volumes would begin falling to 20% or 25% of their usual supplies for this time of year, and possibly less, Harrison said.

Pepper supplies will likely be lowest in March, when fruit lower down on damaged plants is scheduled for harvest, Aiton said.

While prices will remain high on a variety of vegetables, they won’t stay as high as they were right after the freeze, he said.

“First it spiked, now I think there’s some stabilization,” he said.

Harrison, however, predicted bell prices would head up again soon after that stabilization period.

On Feb. 16, the USDA reported prices of $28.95-36.95 for 1 1/9 bushel cartons of jumbo green bell peppers from Mexico, down from $38.95-44.95 on Feb. 10.

In terms of tomato varieties, romas were hit the hardest because the highest percentage of them is grown in open fields, Munger said.

“We’re going to limp along and do the best we can,” he said. “It will take a while to recover.”

Unlike in growing regions like Florida, where growers can pick green tomatoes ahead of a freeze, Mexican vine-ripes don’t have that option, Munger said.

Munger said many of Andrew & Williamson’s customers have been amenable to modifying contract prices in the wake of the freeze.

In return, the company is working hard to ensure high-quality packs.

Onions, melons, grapes fare better

Among those Mexican commodities expected to escape the freezes mostly unscathed are sweet onions, watermelons and grapes.

Mexican sweet onions shouldn’t be affected by the freeze, said Don Ed Holmes, owner of Weslaco, Texas-based The Onion House.

Temperatures got only as low as the mid-30s in the Tampico growing region where the company sources onions, Holmes said.

“The crop was pretty well made,” he said. “It could slow things down a shade, but I don’t think there’s any damage.”

In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, however, the early part of the deal, set to begin about March 25, could be 20% lighter because of freeze damage, Holmes said. Onions planted between Oct. 10 and Nov. 10 for shipment later in the Texas season, however, won’t likely be affected, he said.

Seed stem, misshapen onions and double  centers, in which two onions grow from one root, are among the possible problems Texas growers face, Holmes said.

Al Harrison Co.’s watermelon imports in February come from the Mexican state of Colima, where it did not freeze, Harrison said.

The only wrinkle could be a late start to the watermelon and honeydew deals in Sonora, Harrison said. Fruit may begin shipping from there in mid-April, 10 days to two weeks later than normal.

Sonoran melon volumes also could be off by about 20% because of the freezes, he said.

Freeze damage to Mexican grapes also was expected to be minimal, said Juan Laborin, director of AALPUM, the Hermosillo Grape Growers Association.

Slight damage to perlettes and flames and no damage to sugraones, globes and other varieties was reported, Laborin said in an association news release. Thanks to late bud break this season, very few vineyards had exposed foliage when the freezes hit, he said.

Lettuce f.o.b.s still up

The lettuce market keeps setting a furious pace, as prices for iceberg from Yuma, Ariz., rose $10 in a week. Romaine also shot up. Supplies on both commodities tightened as the effects of unpredictable weather became clearer.

“We expect the market to be a challenge for at least the next two weeks, possibly longer,” Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing at Salinas, Calif.-based The Nunes Co., said Feb. 17. “The bottom line is, plants did not grow in the cold. So what is out there right now is limited supplies with smaller-sized lettuce. You’re seeing a lot more 30s than 24s.”

Iceberg 24-count cartons from Yuma were $31.56-34 on Feb. 14, according to the USDA. That’s up from $21.56-23 the week before and $6-7 a year ago.

Romaine 24s were mostly $31.56-35.50, up from $25.45-26.50 a week ago and $5-6 a year ago.

Many desert growers have reported losses in the 10% to 20% range. Peeling, stunted growth and the sclerotinia fungus have all been problems. There have been freezes, but the larger weather issue is temperature fluctuation.

“A couple of weeks ago they were hitting 80 degrees in the desert (including California’s Imperial Valley),” said Mark McBride, sales manager for Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce. “It’s cooled off. Conditions have been very erratic and it’s dropped the yields.”

“Yuma has so many districts,” Seeley said, “each with its own microclimate. That’s the issue. In one district you have good growing weather, but right next door got hit by rain or cold.”

Staff Writer Mike Hornick contributed to this article.