IMMOKALEE, Fla. —  Florida growers expect to ship continued light volumes of bell peppers until late March as production recovers from a January freeze.

Light Florida bell pepper volume expected until late March

Doug Ohlemeier

Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla., views some young spring bell pepper plantings in early February.
Florida pepper volume is expected to remain light until late March when growers say production should recover from a devastating January freeze that crippled most of the state’s pepper volume.

That freeze crippled most of the state’s pepper volume, leaving February movement a fraction of normal shipments and keeping prices higher than normal.

The subfreezing temperatures destroyed a high percentage of the crop and stopped pickings and packings at south Florida packinghouses.

The only plants that survived were ones growers had covered with straw or other material to keep ground heat from dissipating into the air.

Though the freezing temperatures ended Jan. 12, Pacific Collier Fresh Co. was able to get in only a handful of days of pickings by late February.

Jim Monteith, sales manager, said unfavorable growing weather since the freeze, which included lots of clouds, frequent rains and cooler-than-normal temperatures limited harvest.

He said buyers shouldn’t expect regular pickings to resume until sometime in late March.

“We are being slowed down by this additional cold weather,” Monteith said in late February. “We lost a tremendous amount of product. We have been staying on a regular planting schedule and have not gone in and replanted anything.”

Growers that have anything left in the fields usually have the smaller or off-grade-type pepper, he said. Monteith said the deal needs strong markets to warrant longer pickings.

Pacific Collier normally picks pepper through late April and early May.

High prices
Growers in late February called the pepper market strong.

In mid-February, Monteith and other grower-shipper quoted f.o.b.s in the low $20s or higher. However, prices soon escalated into the $30s by the end of the month.

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., said he expects prices to remain high until volume returns, which he said should begin with decent volumes during the first week of March.

“Even then, pickings will be light,” he said in mid-February. “Some of our oldest spring plantings were hurt and got set back. “Pickings will be a little more sporadic than normal. The quality, however, should be fine.”

Lytch said L&M lost 3% to  4% of its oldest spring plantings, the ones planted in December, to the freeze and experienced some damage on the rest of its crop but has seen recovery.

Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. had some acreage near Estero that went undamaged by the freeze.

“We have a lot of younger pepper that will be fine,” said Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Lipman Family Cos., which grows and packs tomatoes and vegetables through Six L’s and Custom Pak.

“We had a lot of pepper acres that were somewhat affected by the cold weather that will return to production faster than the product that was just transplanted.

“The ones in the midst of planting (during the freeze) came through fine. We will have good pepper production sometime in early March.”

Peppers grown in the Devil’s Garden area east of Immokalee sustained heavy damage.

Some growers there were able to cover some of their crops and had varying results, Odell said.

Growers with fields in the traditionally warmer lands on the East Coast saw only minor damage, Odell said.

Delayed production
The unseasonably cold weather that hit central Florida in January and February will likely delay the start of that region’s harvest.

“Things should be delayed a little bit here,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City. “People were concerned that there could be quite a bit of overlap with south Florida this year as south Florida will come in a little later this season.”

Wishnatzki said he expects central Florida to begin pickings in early May, a little later than the deal’s normal mid- to late April start.

Wishnatzki’s growers were wrapping up plantings in mid-February.

In south Florida, Six L’s plans to ship peppers through early May.