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Produce Industry Insider Market Update

Florida Watermelons Market Snapshot

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting the following prices on watermelons from Florida:

Twenty-four-inch bins of size 45s, $20-21; size 60s, mostly $19.

Prices from the USDA's Fruit & Vegetable Market News April 22.

The Shipping Scene

The 2008 Florida watermelon season has gotten off to a bumpy start as a result of lower-than-usual temperatures and a bad case of gummy stem blight.

McMelon Inc., Lake Wales, started harvesting watermelons about three weeks ago, but owner Arnold Mack says he just realized this week that growers are not going to see nearly as large a crop this year as they anticipated.

He blames the shortfall on the gummy stem blight and the fact that Southern Florida has experienced unusually cool weather the past couple of weeks.

The weather might improve but "the disease doesn't eradicate itself overnight," he says. Even later fields will be hard pressed to make normal tonnage.

Many shippers are going to Mexico to secure product, he says. He expects the shortage to continue for some time.

The effect short supplies will have on the industry will be determined in part by the weather - the warmer the weather on the East Coast, the greater demand will be for watermelon.

Mack says he never would have guessed that Florida could experience a shortage of watermelons during May two years in a row.

"Eventually, it will straighten itself out," he says, but for the next three to four weeks, he's likely to be sourcing from Mexico.

Prices now are a little higher than normal, and Mack says industry speculation is that the market will hold steady or go higher.

Adding to the industry's dilemma is that slightly less acreage was planted in Florida this year, he says.

Raymon Land, owner of Raymon J. Land, Branford, says the condition of the crop "depends on who you talk to and what farm you look at."

Some growers' crops look good, but there's "a real serious problem" with gummy stem, he says.

Extended periods of high winds damaged the plants, weakening them so the fungus could set in.

"It was unbelievable the amount of wind we had," he says.

"Only time will tell if we will continue to have (low yields) throughout the summer," Land says.

Early this week, some areas had experienced nighttime temperatures in the mid- to low 30s. "That really hurts you bad," he says.

But the problems so far only have affected yields, not the condition of the fruit, and growers say they are experiencing excellent quality. In fact, Land says the melons are "probably as good as I've ever seen coming out of South Florida."

If the weather warms and the disease situation doesn't worsen, Florida still may have a fair crop this year, he says.

Southern Florida should have watermelons until Memorial Day, the Northern and Central parts of the state should have them until mid-June, and West Florida could have product until the Fourth of July.

Sunny Fresh Watermelons, Vero Beach, started picking watermelons last week, a bit earlier than usual, and the quality looks good, says Scott Dillon, sales executive.

Brix levels of 10, 12 and even 14 were reported, he says.

He expects volume to pick up as more acreage is harvested as the deal moves up to Northern Florida.

Sunny Fresh will have good-sized watermelons from Florida through May and into June and will have melons from other regions, like Georgia, Delaware and Iowa, until September.

Volume at Sunny Fresh should be higher this year than last year.

"We're hard workers," Dillon says.

The Florida Watermelon Association, Immokalee, will work with the Orlando-based National Watermelon Promotion Board on a number of programs, including in-flight TV advertising for Florida watermelons on Continental Airlines, says Paul Sawyer, president of the Florida association.

Florida watermelon queen Kaley Jo Harper will make more than 100 promotional appearances.

This weekend, the queen will be at the Our Kids World Family Fun Festival in West Palm Beach, where she will serve melons to thousands of children, says Debra Harrison, the watermelon association's promotion coordinator.

The association also has planned farm tours, in-store demos, including visits to more than 30 Florida Wal-Mart stores June 28, and other activities. Gov. Charlie Crist has proclaimed June 1-7 Florida Watermelon Week. Harper and Harrison will be at the state capitol June 4 serving watermelon.

(By Tom Burfield, Western correspondent for The Packer. The Packer and Red Book Credit Services are part of food360º, a division of Vance Publishing Corp., Lincolnshire, Ill.)