(Oct. 28) Supply shortages are causing prices to increase for traditional Thanksgiving holiday produce items such as sweet potatoes and squash, while ample supplies are keeping prices at normal levels for other commodities like celery.

The push is on for produce shippers and buyers preparing promotions for one of retailing’s biggest times of the year. Retailers say they liken the holiday’s sales to Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July.

Prices have been set for many traditional Thanksgiving items, but not all, said Bill Kostrba, senior produce buyer for Unified Western Grocers Inc., Portland, Ore., which sells to independent grocery stores from Northern California to Washington.

“You can always get prices, but that doesn’t mean the price you get is where the market will be at that particular time,” he said. “If the conventional items don’t receive the push they generally want, prices could come crashing down $2-3 a carton.”

Some retailers began setting target prices as early as September.

“It generally works well unless you have some problems with Mother Nature,” said Alex Rilko, produce buyer for Harry’s Whole Foods, Alpharetta, Ga., who buys for 135 stores.

Weather is causing the zucchini, yellow crookneck and yellow straightneck squash market to nearly skyrocket during the past two weeks. Heavy early October rains cut southern Georgia’s harvest by half and increased prices 40%.

“There’s been such a shortage on this with Georgia having such a bad crop,” said Fred Moore, sales manager for Five Bros. Produce Inc., Homestead, Fla., which markets squash, green beans and other Southern vegetables out of Georgia and Florida packing sheds.

“The price has really changed during the last five days. It has gone up considerably.”

Moore said the higher prices could continue through Thanksgiving and will hold until south Florida kicks in with heavy production.

Shay Driggers, vice president and sales manager of Georgia Vegetable Co. Inc., Tifton, Ga., said the rain hurt squash growth.

“All that rain knocked off some of the blooms and hurt volume,” she said. “The market is very high now.”

Southern Georgia squash harvest should continue through mid-November, Driggers said.

GREEN BEANSHot weather and heavy rains that hampered southern Georgia production have doubled the green bean market, said Five Bros. Moore.

“There’s just isn’t any volume now and there won’t be until we get to Florida,” Moore said. Southern Florida production should start Nov. 5.

SWEET POTATOES

Excessive rains are slowing sweet potato harvesting in Louisiana. Despite two tropical storms and a hurricane that drenched parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, sweet potato prices are similar to last year’s.

“I’ve noticed the retail people have been pressuring for lid prices earlier than normal,” said Bob Ray, vice president and general manger of Dupuis Produce Co., Breaux Bridge, La. “They have been watching the weather forecasts and hearing about these storms. We will be in a position to take care of our regular customers with ample supplies.”

The continuing rains will cut the Louisiana crop 20% to 25% and have put the harvest at a standstill, Ray said.

The opposite type of weather, drought, should limit North Carolina’s sweet potato volume. Shippers say volume should be down 10% to 25%. Sizing will also be smaller, they say.

“This will definitely be a shorter crop,” said Bobby Daughtry, a salesman for Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C. “It has been very sporadic harvest, with one area good, the next, not. The earlier harvested ones were probably the best.“

CRANBERRIES

Nick Decas, vice president of sales for Decas Bros. Sales Co. Inc., Wareham, Mass., said a smaller than expected Massachusetts harvest combined with growers opting for higher returns from the processed market could lead to a shortage of fresh market cranberries for Thanksgiving.

“This will be the first time fresh fruit will be in short supply for many years,” he said. “Prices on the processed side have been increasing steadily over the past couple of years and this year promises to go up even more. Fresh fruit prices continue to be low and aren’t keeping pace with that.”

Cranberry demand may spike earlier this year because of production, Decas said. He said he thinks retailers will look to lock in their orders earlier than normal.

CELERY

Celery, a traditional stuffing item, will be in abundant supply with adequate volume to cover the Thanksgiving holiday, said Sam Duda, vice president and general manager of Duda California/Gene Jackson Farms Inc., Salinas.

“Truthfully, we’re in a little disarray,” he said. “There’s a lot of downward pressure from pricing with retailers. A lot of reverse auctions where the low bidder gets all the business. Going into Thanksgiving, there isn’t a lot of urgency to place orders.”

Duda said a little excess inventory has been built up in the fields as the low markets have prompted growers to bypass harvesting some acres.

ASPARAGUS

Thanksgiving has become an important holiday for asparagus, thanks to increasing volume from Peru.

Year-round availability has made asparagus much more affordable, said Mike Rubidoux, director of sales and marketing for Lee Brands LLC, Salinas. He said there will be decent availability out of Peru and Mexico.

“Demand is already high,” he said. “There’s a lot of chain stores looking to promote very good numbers on asparagus this year.”

ONIONS AND POTATOES

This year’s fall storage onion crop should see excellent quality and a 10% decrease in volume, grower-shippers say. Though prices are similar to last year, they are not on the way down as they were last season, grower-shippers say.

Potato prices are moving higher.

“The fryers have come out and bought some lots at higher prices than the fresh market can currently pay for fresh potatoes and have made the current grower market for open spuds fairly tight,” said Kevin Stanger, vice president of marketing for Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls.

PUMPKINS

Pumpkin grower-shippers say the season brought a little higher supplies and good movement.

Though some pie pumpkins will be used in Thanksgiving meals, Joe Pirrone, president of Mike Pirrone Produce Inc., Capac, Mich., said the big push for pie pumpkins usually ends in early November. Pumpkin grower-shippers are pushing to have pumpkins used as a decorative Thanksgiving item, Pirrone said.

POMEGRANATES

Smaller sizing could bring slightly higher prices for the fruit called the Chinese apple, which should end production in California by the first of November, said David Simonian, president of Simonian Fruit Co., Fowler, Calif.

“There will be plenty available through Thanksgiving and the middle of December,” he said.

GREEN ONIONS

Retail chains have increasingly promoted green onions during Thanksgiving, Rubidoux said.

Retailers should find good availability of green onions produced out of the Mexciali Valley.

“The chains are looking for a lot of good volume on it,” Rubidoux said.

“The availability should be there. They are a good item for Thanksgiving.”

APPLES AND GRAPES

Fareway Stores Inc., Boone, Iowa, an 80-store chain that serves Iowa, has increased its holiday sales of apples and grapes, said William Curran, Fareway’s produce buyer.

“I always hope California will be able to hold on for some quality (grape) product at least through Thanksgiving,” he said.

“I know it’s a great deal to ask to have them venture into the Christmas season.”

Fareway and other stores will feature Washington state apples.

“We are seeing a big improvement in granny smith apples every year,” said Harry’s Whole Foods’ Rilko.

“They’re becoming more of a staple item for Thanksgiving.”