BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Though Florida’s vegetables have begun rebounding from prolonged freezing weather, buyers should expect significant supply gaps for green beans, potatoes and bell peppers.

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which has growing operations in south, central and northern Florida, said the state hasn’t seen favorable growing conditions outside of the January freezes.

Supply gaps continuing for Florida vegetables

Doug Ohlemeier

Freeze-damaged bell peppers south of Immokalee, Fla., in January. Heavy rains and colder than normal temperatures have hindered crop growth since.

Heavy rains and colder than normal temperatures have prevailed since the January freeze and temperatures fell into the low 30s on Feb. 10 and on Feb. 14, with more cold weather forecast.

“We have not really had any warm weather to warm the ground up since the January freezes,” Lytch said Feb. 15. “It’s really amazing to me that the crops we do have left and the ones coming on now look as good as they do considering what they have been through.”
On bell peppers, Lytch said volume is a fraction of what it should be in February and that he expects pickings to begin on some limited volume by March 1. Normal pepper volume isn’t expected until early to mid-March, he said.

Mexican sourcing
To support its customers, Lytch said L&M has been sourcing peppers and squash from Mexico.

He said he expects pepper prices to remain high until mid-March because Mexico has also experienced weather problems.  Heavy rains have delayed pepper harvesting, Lytch said.

Lytch said L&M expects to return to normal squash volume in mid-March.

Jason Hollinger, director of procurement for Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, Pa., said Mexican produce has helped make up for some supply gaps.

“Mexico has sent a lot of the tomatoes, peppers and vegetables they would normally keep in Mexico to the states through Nogales (Ariz.) because they heard about the high prices,” Hollinger said in mid-February.

Mexico should remain with supplies until the end of April and into early May when Florida is expected to return to volume, Hollinger said.

The northeastern distributor expects prices for beans, peppers and tomatoes to remain high.

Hollinger said he’s seeing beans shipped to the East Coast hitting the mid- to high-$40s with some hitting as high as the low $50s.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, three-quarter-bushel cartons/crates of crookneck squash from south Florida have soared to $40 while corn, but beans and eggplant remained in too few hands to establish a market in mid-February.

Replantings after a freeze are different from the normal beginning of the season because growers don’t plant on the same day or week at the start of a season. After a freeze, Hollinger said buyers can expect product to hit the market within 45 days, and he expects prices to fall quickly depending on growing season weather.

Smaller potato crop
Florida potato buyers can expect later and lighter than normal supplies and possible supply gaps in early to mid-March.

Because a fall drought pushed plantings back and caused a later starting spring deal, Ken Wiles, general manager of Lake Wales-based River Packaging Inc., a division of Mack Farms Inc., said buyers should expect a large drop in volume from south and central Florida.

“There will be some potatoes but some growers here and there will gap at different times and make the first weeks of March pretty tight with supplies,” Wiles said Feb. 15. “Anyone that’s up north who wants to buy Florida potatoes will be able to find potatoes, but not from certain growers. They may have to go to two to three growers instead of one as they would normally go to. Potatoes will be really tight for at least two weeks in March.”

Mack Farms plans to start diggings Feb. 22, about two weeks later than normal.

Growers replanted much of the bean acreage lost to the freeze, but those crops are for spring production, said Gary Stafford, salesman with Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee.

Branch’s growers had a small volume of winter beans that escaped damage, he said.

In mid-February, Branch’s growers were packing 4,000-5,000 crates a week, compared to the 16,000-18,000 crates they normally pack a week, Stafford said

“No one on the lake (Lake Okeechobee) has any beans now because they lost them all,” he said. “Prices will remain stronger than normal until production increases. When that will be is a question mark. As long as supply stays tight, prices should remain strong.”

Strawberries coming back
Other crops, such as strawberries, are starting to rebound.

Because of the freeze-related delays, Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, said Florida’s January and early February strawberry production was down 70% from the same time last season.

However, Mixon said things look better going forward.

“We are all very excited about the end of February and early March production,” he said. “We would like everyone to know that Florida should really regain large promotable strawberry volume by Feb. 25. The industry needs the world to know that.”
Mixon said Florida growers hope they can finish their season on a strong note and have promotable volume through the end of March, when the state’s winter strawberry pickings begin to decline.