The start of the Florida tomato season was delayed by unusually warm weather and heavy rains during September and October, but shipments were expected to return to normal by mid- to late-December according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook Report.

The 2011 fall fresh-market tomato prices are above their fourth quarter 2010 average but still remain below the very high freeze-related levels of early 2011.

Grower prices for field-grown tomatoes were expected to be up 5 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010 even as the third-quarter prices were not as strong as the previous year.

In the onion market, shipping volumes were strong in 2011.

Onion prices during the fourth quarter were down compared with both the same time a year earlier and the summer and fall months of 2011. Total fresh-onion shipments were down slightly in the third quarter compared with 2010, but volume was up early in the fourth quarter of 2011.

The outlook for fresh vegetables this winter indicates greatly improved supplies and much lower prices. At the same time, demand is expected to continue to slowly improve as consumers cautiously return to away-from-home meals.

Assuming no freeze damage this winter, the seasonal price outlook strongly favors prices that are well below those of the freeze-affected highs of a year earlier.

In general, according to the report, shipping-point prices for vegetables are down from a year ago, although fresh-market prices have maintained their levels better than prices in the processed markets.

High early-spring levels (February and March) kept the 2011 average grower price index for all commercial vegetables above the comparable 2010 average for the first 11 months.

However, since July, the average 2011 price index has been almost 15 points below 2010 as fall prices weakened.

When reported quarterly average prices are compared, only cucumber and tomato prices are above their 2010 levels. With reduced shipments, grower prices for cucumbers have increased substantially from the very low prices reported during fourth quarter of 2010.

During the fourth quarter of 2011, the shipping-point price for U.S. cantaloupes will average approximately 17 cents per pound — about one-fourth lower than a year earlier.

The U.S. market is transitioning to imported melons, largely from Central America, with the early winter outlook favoring average supplies and lower prices than a year earlier.

Driven largely by fresh-market vegetables, which comprise about 65 percent of total vegetable value, a 1.6-percent average annual growth is projected for the farm value of vegetables and melons over the next decade, according to USDA.

Farm value increase expected

The farm value of fresh-market vegetables is forecast to grow by 1.5 percent per year while processing vegetables expand faster at a 2-percent pace.

The farm value of vegetables is expected to reach $25 billion by 2021. Import growth is expected to be about 3 percent, which is expected to help support limited expansion in per capita domestic use through 2021.

Fresh-market vegetable production is projected to grow by 0.9 percent annually to 2021 along with a corresponding price rise between 0.6 and 0.7 percent as per capita demand rebounds.

About 21 percent of U.S. domestic use of vegetables is currently supplied from imports. In 2021, this share is expected to climb to approximately 25 percent as imported vegetables and melon shipments are anticipated to grow 3.1 percent annually.

At half this growth pace, vegetable exports will remain around 14 percent of domestic production by 2021. In value terms, U.S. exports of vegetables are projected to increase to $7.9 billion in 2021 from $5.7 billion in 2011. The value of imported vegetables is roughly twice that of exports.

From 417 pounds per capita, domestic vegetable use is expected to climb to 439 pounds per capita by 2021, a 0.5-percent annual rise. Although increasing again, this level of per capita use still remains lower than levels during the decade between 1996 and 2005, which were consistently above 440 pounds.

The projected rise in vegetable consumption is helped by anticipated producer price inflation for fresh vegetables remaining modest in the coming decade. The price index level in 2021 is forecast to be only less than 1 percent higher than in 2011.

Part of the reason for this stable long-run price scenario for fresh vegetables is their projected 5-percent price decline in 2012 despite somewhat lower production as prices return to pre-2011 levels.

The total farm value of vegetables and melons will comprise 36 percent of domestic horticultural crop value in 2021. This compares to the 39-percent share estimated for fruits and nuts.

Up to 2009, the share of vegetables in horticulture farm value exceeded that of fruits and nuts. The share reversal between fruits and vegetables starting in 2010 is due in part to relatively slower producer price inflation for vegetables.

Prices received by vegetable growers are projected to increase by less than half the rate for fruit and nut farmers over the next decade.

Close to half the value of U.S. vegetable imports, both fresh and processed, is shipped from Mexico with Canadian shipments now less than 50 percent of Mexican levels. More than half of total imported shipments are fresh-market vegetables.

The bulk of vegetable imports from Mexico, and about half of Canada’s, are fresh vegetables, led by tomatoes and peppers.

The largest market for U.S. vegetable exports is Canada, which purchased 46 percent of shipments in 2011. Japan and Mexico are by far the next largest markets for U.S.-grown vegetables.

Based on shares of U.S. farm sales value, the state of Washington has recently overtaken Florida as the second leading exporter of vegetables, fresh and processed, after California.

Close to half of Washington vegetable farm value comes from potatoes, making that commodity the state’s top vegetable export.

Again led by sizable potato production, Idaho is the next biggest state exporter of vegetables, followed by North Dakota with its large dry bean production.

phollis@farmpress.com