(Nov. 1) Typical of rain, it slowed some bell pepper shipping and harvest this fall, but product should arrive on time after a November harvest in Florida.

Florida growers began crown picking in mid-October. While their fields missed the deluge that hit Georgia from Hurricane Isidore, scattered showers did reduce the amount of jumbo and extra-large sizes available. However, growers reported that the rain and warmer growing days will boost growth, and development during October and their normal harvesting should begin on time in mid-November.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California continues to produce nearly half of the nation’s bell peppers, with a shipping season that runs from April to December, but the peak of the volume occurs from May through July.

The Florida season produces almost 40% of U.S. bell-type peppers. Shipments normally begin in late October, peak during March and April and taper off in late July. Winter also is a season of imported peppers, largely from Mexico, but Israel and Spain also provide another source.

Tom Mueller, director of sales for Six L’s Packing Co., Immokalee, Fla., said his company would pack bell-type peppers from 1,000 acres in Florida this winter.

“The harvest is coming on quickly,” Mueller said, “though it might take a couple of weeks for the larger sizes to come in.”

Six L’s grows green peppers in the Immokalee/Naples area on the west coast of Florida. He said the early picking began in late October and that promotional volume should be shipping by mid-November.

Mueller said the company already was shipping a full line of chili peppers from Florida.

“We began shipping jalapenos, cubanelles, long hots and hungarian wax peppers,” he said.

Mueller said the weather conditions were encouraging all the peppers to size up fast and that yields were excellent.

Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, will ship peppers harvested from about 800 acres this year, said Jim Montieth, general manager.

Montieth said the absence of jumbo and extra large sizes probably would continue until mid-November, when the Florida fields began to yield the larger sizes.

“Right now, because of the heat, the larger size markets will still run between $12-14 per 1 1/9 bushel,” he said.

California production began to wane in mid-October because of cooler days.

“We’re really winding down,” said Matt Biscotti, category manager for Sun World’s Coachella, Calif., facility. “There’ll be some activity out in the Imperial Valley that will start in the next few weeks, but supplies will be light. Everything’s moving to Florida and then Mexico.”

Shippers in the early fall bell pepper season in Georgia, which should run through Thanksgiving, reported they were winding down in late October. Georgia growers had planned for a stronger market and increased their pepper acreage for this fall’s harvest to 5,400 acres, although that number was still 31% short of their 2000 plantings.

Georgia growers instead fought summerlong battles against excessive heat, many to the point of exhausting their deep-well irrigation. Then, just as the harvest season got under way, Hurricane Isidore turned eastward from New Orleans, swept across Georgia and dropped more than 16 inches of rain in three days.

“It was just too much water all at one time,” said Daniel Whittles, salesman for Pero Packing and Sales, Inc. Delray Beach, Fla. Pero ships green peppers out of its Adel, Ga., packinghouse. “We would have welcomed the water if it was spread out, but instead it cut everything short.”

The wet fields curtailed both size and quality, Whittles said. What supply of jumbo and extra-large could be found Sept. 24 were selling for $10-12.35 for 1 1/9-bushel crates. Extra-large peppers were $10-10.35. Large and mediums sold at $6.00-6.35.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Georgia produces about 5% of U.S. demand and helps fill market gaps as a fall and late-spring bell pepper supplier. Demand, however, remained moderate so that the early-fall pepper market remained steady.

The effects of the drought had been felt earlier in western North Carolina where bell-type 1 1/9-bushel crates of extra-large peppers sold for $10, and large ranged between $7-8. This was the second year in a row in which weather dampened the early fall market in Georgia. This time last year, cool weather in south Georgia reduced volume and edged prices up.

The Texas harvest that normally ends in mid-October also suffered from a lack of moisture throughout its growing season, and acreage planted was smaller than last year’s. Sales of 1 1/9-bushel crates of green bells, extra-large sold for $7-9, with large selling for $6-8.

Despite the weather-reduced crop, Southern vegetable shippers report they met most orders, even though size and overall quality were down. One reason given for the ability to maintain shipments was a substantial increase in the number of hothouse acres that came online during last spring.

Hothouse growers claim it was their ability to consistently produce a commercially viable product that brought them improved pepper sales. Frank Pero, president of Pero Packing and Sales, said this year’s output of hothouse peppers ranks among the best in recent memory.

“The quality has been good this year, and prices are better than expected,” Pero said.

While supplies of field-grown and hothouse peppers have increased, demand increases have kept pace. The USDA reports that season-average bell pepper shipping point prices (without adjustment for inflation) gained an average of 67 cents per cwt. a year between 1960 and 2000, The average price during the 2000 season was $31.50 per cwt. f.o.b. That was a 1% increase over the 1999 average and 28% above 1990.

According to a report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the continuing strong demand also pushed up the retail price for fresh-market peppers by 25% between 1994 and 1999. The U.S. retail price for fresh-market bell peppers averaged $1.41 per pound in 1999, the last full year the U.S. Department of Labor reported national bell pepper retail prices. As a commodity, the marketing price spread — the difference between farm and retail price — for fresh bell peppers is now similar to that of tomatoes and onions.

Improved yields coupled with more hothouse facilities and an increase in Mexican producers increased pepper production by more than 900 million pounds during the 1990s. Ram Acharya, assistant research professor for the National Food Agricultural Policy Project in Mesa, Ariz., said domestic production is projected to increase at an average annual rate of 3% in the next decade.

The ERS report also said the U.S. market is a net importer of peppers, while some shippers do export to Canada during the winter. In all, the demand for bell peppers still outpaces supply. Consumption of bell peppers is increasing at 5.9% per year and has pushed up the price by 1.6% per year during the last decade. Increases in consumption as well as retail prices are expected to continue in the next decade, but at a slower pace.