(Feb. 11) NOGALES, Ariz. — Importers of Mexican tomatoes doubt they’ll see a previously expected increase in f.o.b.s as volumes rise in late February.

Even as foggy and cool weather lingered throughout many growing regions, shipments of asparagus, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes and bell peppers saw higher movement than in previous weeks during the first week of February. Season-to-date movement for these items lag behind last year, with bell peppers only slightly behind and tomatoes about 45% behind.

“I don’t think we can catch up” to normal volumes by season’s end, said Toru Fujiwara, vice president at Omega Produce Co. Inc., Nogales. Lower volumes have been compounded by quality problems, which further limited Omega’s sales to about 10% of the company’s usual numbers as of Feb. 11.

Vine-ripe tomato prices at Nogales were markedly higher than the same time a year ago, but shippers said they were surprised they weren’t even higher due to restricted movement. On Feb. 9, two-layer 4x4s and 4x5s were $8.35-$10.95 (compared to $6.35-7.35 a year ago), 5x5s were $7.35-8.35 (compared to $4.85 in 2003) and 5x6s were $7.35 (compared to $4.55 a year ago).

“The market is kind of funny right now,” said Ana Astrid Celaya, sales manager at Malena Produce Inc., Nogales. “The reaction we were expecting is not there, so the market is kind of stuck.”

T.J. Bauer, sales manager for the Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. Nogales branch, said roma supplies won’t bounce back until late February, and bell peppers will increase in early March as new crops reach maturity in the Culiacan area of Sinaloa.

The quality of crops, particularly of cucumbers, will get better, Bauer said.

A cold winter continued to effect crops in south and central Sinaloa in early February, with cloudy and cold days, said Willy Martinez, merchandising and customer relations representative for Del Campo Supreme Inc., Nogales.

Bell peppers are more tolerant of the cold and have some greenhouse production in western Mexico. Shipments from late January and early February were on par with the same periods in 2003. Overall shipments for this season have dipped only a fraction from last season.

Green bell peppers on Feb. 9 were $12.35 for 1 1/9 bushel cartons/crates of extra large, $10.35-10.65 for large and $8.35-10.35 for mediums; cartons/crates of red mediums were $16.85-18.95.