Slowly improving demand will trump good availability in the U.S. fresh vegetable market this summer and prices should be higher than in 2009, according to the USDA’s latest Vegetable & Melons Outlook Report.

Assuming no disruptions from tropical weather, shipping-point prices for summer fresh-market vegetables are expected to average about one-tenth above a year earlier, according to the report. Despite increased area, average retail prices for melons trended lower through July, but were expected to rise by late August as watermelon supplies tighten.

Assuming yields below last year’s record high and a 1 percent increase in area harvested, projected summer storage onion production for fresh market (excluding processing onions) will likely be down from the 46.5 million hundredweight (cwt) of 2009. This crop will transition from the summer non-storage onion crop, which is expected to total 9.6 million cwt — down less than 1 percent from a year earlier. Following a spring and summer featuring very strong prices, fresh dry-bulb onion prices have slowly begun to weaken seasonally as harvest of the storage crop begins.

This summer — mostly July through September — area for harvest of the three leading melon crops was estimated to be 89,100 acres — 2 percent below a year earlier. With the exception of cantaloupes (up 1 percent), area is expected to be lower, with watermelon acreage expected to decline 3 percent from a year earlier. With lower yields and reduced market volume for all melons, prices have moved above a year earlier, with July wholesale prices for all melons averaging 20 percent higher.

Cantaloupe area

Although cantaloupe area was down in California, growers in Texas and the Southeast (Georgia and South Carolina) planted more area, with eastern growers taking advantage of good demand for eastern-grown cantaloupes. Watermelon is the top crop during the summer in terms of acreage and market volume, with area for harvest down in Georgia and Texas — the top states in terms of area.

Fresh-market vegetable area for harvest for 11 selected crops (excluding summer non-storage onions and melons) is forecast to increase 3 percent from a year ago. If realized, this will be the first increase in summer fresh-vegetable acreage since 2001.

Summer fresh-vegetable area has been declining as steadily increasing yields have outpaced demand, resulting in the need for fewer acres.

Area is up this summer despite lower farm prices a year earlier (which followed record-high nominal dollar prices (unadjusted for inflation) in the summer of 2008). However, commercial vegetable prices have been strong, beginning with last fall as a variety of weather-related ills have beset markets since last summer.

California, accounting for 46 percent of this year’s summer season area, reduced fresh vegetable acreage by 2 percent for the third consecutive year. Much of California’s projected reduction was due to lower area for carrots (down 12 percent) and broccoli (down 9 percent). New York, the second leading summer-season producer with 16 percent of acreage, expects to harvest 4 percent more area than a year earlier on the strength of rising cabbage (up 9 percent) and sweet corn (up 4 percent) area. New York is the leading producer of sweet corn, cabbage, and snap beans during the summer months.

In California, the cool, wet spring has given way to a cooler-than-normal summer. Since late June, growing degree days are down 20 percent or more from normal in Sacramento, Salinas and Oxnard. Crop growth has been slower than normal, impacting harvest schedules in the coastal growing areas where cool-season crops like lettuce are produced.

The cold spring and reduced summer heat in many of California’s inland growing regions has slowed growth and delayed harvest by as much as two to three weeks for warm-season crops like tomatoes and melons. The majority of California’s fresh-market tomatoes are produced in the San Joaquin Valley, where (other than the Fresno area) temperatures have been below normal this summer.

Although cool temperatures may improve quality and enhance fruit set, delayed maturity may reduce the potential harvest period and result in average yield for much of California’s fresh-market tomato crop.

At the beginning of August, vegetable growth and harvest progression remained uneven and later than normal in Washington and Oregon due to the cold spring and cool summer. However, fresh-market vegetable crops in other parts of the country were generally progressing ahead of normal, with warm temperatures and adequate precipitation boosting yields.

phollis@farmpress.com