(Dec. 19) Persistent rain across Florida the second week of December brought only slight damage to strawberry and vegetable crops, but the accompanying cooler weather slowed production considerably.

This winter’s El Niño weather helped steer cold fronts farther south and dump four times or more the average amount of rainfall for the month in just the first two weeks of December. Some areas got more than 9 inches of rain, while others had less than 3 inches.

The rain was leading to a lot of culled tomatoes at midmonth, said Sean Minniear, assistant sales manager for Ruskin Vegetable Corp., Ruskin, Fla. The temporary weather-related setbacks helped keep the market strong at quoted prices of $16 for 5x6s, $13 for 6x6s and $10 for 6x7s, he said.

“There’s still not too many tomatoes out there,” Minniear said.

LITTLE LONG-TERM EFFECT

The long-term marketplace effects of Florida’s up-and-down weather — a warming trend through Dec. 20 was expected to be followed by another cold front — shouldn’t be significant, barring an extreme weather event. Minniear said much will depend on how Mexico’s tomato production figures into the equation after Jan. 1.

Tom O’Brien, president of Bradenton, Fla.-based C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. Inc., said the vegetable item most hurt in Florida was beans.

“There’s a lot of business on beans for the holidays, and you’re just not going to be able to fill your orders,” O’Brien said, noting the market for the item in mid-December was $16-18.

The colder temperatures in December have had more of an effect than the rain, said Jim Monteith, general manager of Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla.

“It’s pretty much slowed down the production on squash,” Monteith said. “We went from picking every day to every other day.”

The market reflected that, he said, with fancy green and yellow straightneck squash going from $5-6 to $10 from the second to third week in December.

Bell peppers, meanwhile, were largely unaffected, Monteith said, though some bloom drop and less volume may show up in late January.

STRAWBERRIES

Florida’s strawberry production continued its sluggish start, but that wasn’t due to the rain, several observers said. F.o.b.s stood at $18.90-19.90 in mid-December, shippers said, though some holiday commitments figured to be less than that.

“They did surprisingly well through the rain, and then the cool weather behind it helped,” said Dick White, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover, Fla. “We’re way behind this year, but then we had record heat last year in December, so we were ahead of a normal year.”

Florida strawberry producers shipped about 100,000 flats the second week of December — about 40% less than would be expected, said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Plant City.

Cooler weather and rainfall can explain some of that, but much can also be attributed to a significant move away from the once-popular and early-producing sweet charlie strawberry variety. More than 20% of last year’s crop was planted in the variety but less than 2% of this year’s berries are sweet charlies, Hinton said.

“Last year we were complaining the berries were coming off too fast and too small,” Hinton said, noting this year’s crop reflects better quality. “I think things are going to catch up around the first of the year.”