As the economy stabilizes, importers from Central America and the Caribbean are expecting steady sales of tropical fruit and vegetables while abnormal weather keeps volumes in check.

“As the economy improves, people are not quite ‘business as usual’ like it was, but I think the worst is over and better times are ahead,” said Mark Vertrees, marketing manager for M&M Farms, Miami.

He said consumers and suppliers are being “very careful on spending.”

Amador Sanchez, salesman at Fresh King, Inc., Homestead, Fla., agreed consumers are avoiding higher-priced items at grocery stores and volume is down, but good potential still remains for wintertime tropicals.

“The economy has been hurting the business a little bit, but [produce] is still moving, and there is still a lot of potential,” he said. “[Customers] are buying a lot less. … We’re about the same, but whomever is saying that they’re doing better than years before — I think they are lying.”

Larry Leighton, president of Caribbean Fruit Connection Corp., Miami, said that after a very tough November his sales for the year will be within 5% of last year’s, depending on December.

“Clearly, we’ve expanded what it is we do during the course of the year,” he said.

Sanchez said the current produce market is about staying power.

“Today it is about keeping the business going and doing a good job and being there until things get better,” he said. “I think that they are going to turn around pretty soon.”

Numerous suppliers from Central America and the Caribbean noted abnormal weather conditions this year. Although the effects of Hurricane Ike had little impact on growing areas, the Caribbean suffered rains and wind that delayed crop planting, and Central America had unusual rainy periods.

Caribbean Fruit Connection’s Leighton said in the hurricane season growers in the region expect downturns caused by the storms.

“This year, the hurricanes were almost a nonevent,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said winds and rain in the Caribbean delayed planting and damaged some crops, notably in Haiti.

Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla., whose main papaya production is in Belize, said hurricanes were not a major issue in the Yucatan peninsula. However, she said there was too much rain in the islands, causing a slow down of harvesting for coconuts and chayotes in the Dominican Republic.

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Fla., said sugar snaps and snow peas have been in short supply because of rains from end-of-season tropical storms.

“We expect to dry out and have good supplies,” he said of vegetable crops in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

Southern Specialties’ product list from Central America includes sugar snaps, snow peas, French beans, baby squash, specialty lettuce, limes and tropical fruit.

“What we try to do is grow in several different climates, and by doing that we can hedge our bets,” he added.

Maria Gutierrez, sales manager for Fresh King Inc., who also grows snow peas and sugar snaps in Guatemala, said heavy rains in June and July depressed volumes just as Peru suffered weather-related production problems, causing prices to skyrocket.

Gutierrez said supplies of the two products are starting to come back with snow peas coming much faster.

For growers of melons in Guatemala and Honduras, dry weather conditions for most of the year actually helped accelerate planting and harvesting.

“Hurricane Ida affected Costa Rica and El Salvador, but really didn’t affect the melon-growing areas in Guatemala and Honduras,” said Lou Kertesz, vice president of Fresh Quest Produce Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla.

Kertesz said so far weather conditions have been optimal, with hot days and cool evenings that help to bring out the sweetness.

“Last year was the wettest year we’ve ever seen prior to the planting season. This year was the complete opposite,” said Michael Warren, president of Central American Produce, Pompano Beach, Fla., who grows honeydew and cantaloupe in Guatemala. “It was very dry year but it allowed us to get in the fields, have great soil preparation and really prepare the land to get the best results.”

Despite the economic downturn, regional suppliers say there is still room for growth as tropical roots and fruits gain mainstream acceptance in North America. Government commitment to exports, attracting foreign investment and improving infrastructure, are also positive signs.

“We believe that agricultural commerce out of Central America will continue to grow for many years,” said Southern Specialties’ Eagle, who cited factors including land costs, climate, labor pool and proximity to the U.S.

Eddie Caram, general manager of New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., noted countries across the region also are making infrastructure gains.

“Costa Rica has gotten a lot better. Guatemala for sure. Nicaragua is really trying,” he said. “They are right behind, trying to be big players especially in root vegetables.”