BELLE GLADE, Fla. — After December freezes ravaged their crops, Florida grower-shippers are eying more typical spring volume.

The surprise cold, which struck three separate times in December, disrupted movement and cut volume of items such as bell pepper and squash, and slowed shipments of other items such as tomatoes and strawberries.

Grower-shippers were finished with salvaging crops affected by the freezes, and in February had started shipping newly grown crops. They report spring production is looking favorable.

Boosted by higher prices, Florida poised for strong spring rebound

Doug Ohlemeier

Bryan Biederman, assistant sales manager for Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, Fla., displays some yellow corn in early February. Shippers say the spring deal should start a little earlier than normal and that buyers can expect to see promotable volumes by early April.

Devastating freezes that struck Mexican growing regions hammered production and sent markets skyrocketing. Prices for many vegetables, such as bell peppers, squash and tomatoes, shot to $30-40.

Though Florida growers were harvesting some variable quality crops in January and February, Brian Rayfield, vice president of sales and marketing for J&J Produce Inc., Loxahatchee, said the state is positioned for producing some high-quality produce this spring.

Tight supplies, high prices
Combined with Mexico’s problems, Rayfield said the December Florida freezes took their toll on winter supplies and have been keeping production low and prices high.

“Product is extremely limited from Florida,” Rayfield said in late February. “Demand is exceeding supply to the extent of more than I have ever seen on such a wide range of commodities. The weather event in Mexico has created so many different commodities being tight. The collateral damage is amazing.”

Buyers shouldn’t expect significant supplies of Florida squash, beans and corn to hit until mid-March to the first of April, with bell pepper and eggplant not resuming promotable volume until the middle of April until the first of May, Rayfield said.

Spring deals

Buoyed by higher than normal winter prices after Mexico’s losses, tomato growers are eyeing a more typical year.

“I think we’ll be okay on the spring deal,” Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said in mid-February. “The Florida freeze was early enough this year so that people that had plans to put crops in went ahead with their plantings. Our plans in Florida are generally for normalcy. We are looking for a fairly normal spring.”

In February, shippers of green beans and corn were awaiting a better spring after the freezes destroyed most of Palm Beach County production.

Bryan Biederman, assistant sales manager for Pioneer Growers Co-op, said the cold didn’t harm the spring crops, which begin in late March and early April.

“The freezes are behind us,” Biederman said in late February. “Should we not have another freeze, our volume and our quality should be where we want it to be in late March, April and May.”

Biederman said Belle Glade area growers have been planting heavily and look for a great spring.

Because of the December freezes, Jim Monteith, sales manager for Immokalee-based Pacific Collier Fresh Co., said the deal brought light volume through January and February, and that Immokalee-area grower-shippers haven’t run much volume.

He said Immokalee has been “like a ghost town” as packinghouses during the winter have been running only a day or two a week, and usually run with lighter than normal volume.

“Look for everything to be back around mid-March,” he said in late February. “The plants look really good. They’re very healthy.”

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., which has operations in north and south Florida, said cold weather delayed crops planted in December that usually begin harvesting in late February. Production was expected to start in early March, a solid two weeks later than normal.

“The young product we had during the cold is fine,” Lytch said in mid-February. “The quality of the bell pepper is really nice, but the midwinter plants were severely stunted. They weren’t making the yield or size we’d normally be making.”

Five Bros. Produce Inc., Homestead, was shipping strong volumes of squash in February and began shipping promotable volumes of green beans in late February.

Fred Moore, salesman, agreed that the Mexican losses have altered the produce landscape.

“As January, February and early March are usually the largest production for Mexican product, if they get knocked out, there’s not enough product in Florida to replace what’s lost there,” he said. “The Mexican situation has really changed and helped move the product.”

Moore said Florida spring production looks strong.

The freeze didn’t seriously harm many leafy green and other vegetables out of Belle Glade and Palm Beach County, said Jason Bedsole, sales manager of Eastern vegetables and citrus for Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., the fresh division of Oviedo-based A. Duda & Sons Inc.

“It set them back a little on the harvest dates in the beginning, but everything has come back to normal and is doing fairly well,” he said in late February. “It’s only a small setback with no major damage.”

On citrus, shippers experienced the effects of winter Northeastern snowstorms that crippled demand.

“We thought we had a very good first half of the season,” said Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce. “We had a lot of good retail support and had good momentum until January. Then it hit a brick wall and business stopped. Those Northeastern storms kept people from going out and shopping.”

Swords said navels shipped a little longer this year and that late-season valencias look well and have larger sizings than the earlier oranges.

Florida growers also ship strawberries, blueberries, watermelons, potatoes, tropicals and other vegetables.