IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Buyers can expect continued shortages of Florida vegetables after growers survey damages from another round of freezes that struck the state in late December.

Tomatoes spared, but Florida freezes keep prices high

Courtesy Gene McAvoy

Immokalee, Fla. area bell peppers damaged by subfreezing temperatures that struck south Florida growing regions in early and mid-December. Grower-shippers say prices for beans and corn remain high and in early estimates, state officials peg damages at $273 million.

Tomatoes, however, appear to have fared better than originally believed.

State agriculture officials estimate the freezes, which struck south and central Florida growing regions in early, mid- and late December, caused $273 million in damage.

The news comes as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture designate 35 Florida counties as part of an emergency disaster declaration so growers can seek federal disaster assistance.

Early damage estimates — released before the Dec. 27-29 freezes — are pegged at $115 million in grower cash receipts with $273 million in total losses that include trucking and groceries, said Sarah Criser, a department deputy press secretary.

“Farmers are definitely taking proactive measures to try to salvage and preserve as much of their crop as possible,” she said Jan. 3. “They are doing as much as they can to get their crops to the production facilities so can get them to supermarkets as well. This is definitely having an impact on Florida’s farmers, but they are resilient and are bouncing back from it as quickly as possible.”

Tomatoes didn’t suffer additional damage during the late-December freezes, which saw temperatures plummet to 27 degrees on Dec. 28 in Immokalee, the heart of Florida winter tomato production.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato Inc., which has Immokalee-area production, said the overall industry survived the series of December freezes and that buyers should expect ample supplies of tomatoes.

Spencer said buyers should expect ample supplies through early February when volume should gradually build to heavier volume.

“There are more tomatoes that came through than we initially thought,” he said in early January. “I don’t think there will be that big of a shortage. When you combine the production that will take place out of Mexico, there will be plenty of tomatoes for the U.S. through June.”

According to the USDA, 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% U.S. No. One or better from central and south Florida on Jan. 3 sold for $8.95-9.95 for 5x6s with 6x6s and 6x7s selling for $11.95, down from late December when 5x6s sold for $11.95 and 6x6s and 6x7s sold for $13.95.

Shippers say lower volume should keep prices high for Florida green beans, sweet corn and bell peppers.

As the earlier freezes devastated Belle Glade corn and beans and Immokalee beans, shippers were turning to Homestead to supply customers.

Bryan Biederman, assistant sales manager for Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, said the Homestead region sustained only limited damage.

“From the Belle Glade standpoint, it’s hard to kill something that’s already dead,” he said Jan. 3. “The first four nights of freezes pretty much wiped out Belle Glade.”

On Jan. 3, he quoted wirebound crates of 4-4 1/2 dozen of yellow, white and bicolor corn selling for $28.95 with bushel cartons/crates of beans fetching $40.85. Both commodities remained unchanged in price from late December.

Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., said bell pepper growers were surveying fields on Jan. 3. He said the late December freeze brought more frost to Immokalee-area fields and should keep volume low.

“Preliminarily, for the next couple of months, we will be very light on product because of the two freezes,” he said. “We won’t see full production again until the spring crop starts in March.”

Quoting $8-10 for 1 1/9 bushel cartons of jumbos, Monteith called prices relatively low considering the freeze damage. He said low holiday demand and abundant Mexican supplies were likely keeping prices unaffected.

In Gov. Crist’s Dec. 30 letter to USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, he said the depth and breadth of the damage will continue to be seen in the days and weeks ahead and that there would likely be quality issues for some of the crops that escaped damage.

Growers can file crop insurance claims and seek low-interest emergency loans