U.S. acreage for major fresh-market vegetables was forecast to decline by 1 percent to 159,700 acres for the fall growing season, according to the latest Vegetables and Melons Outlook from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

This compares to a 3-percent increase last fall and follows little change in summer vegetable acreage this year. Growers of five of the 11 surveyed crops were expected to increase acreage this fall. Reductions in area are expected for the remaining six crops, including two of the most consumed fresh vegetables, head lettuce (down 3 percent) and tomatoes (down 2 percent).

Acreage is expected to decline about 1 percent each in California and Florida — the top producing states. California is expected to harvest about two-thirds of fall fresh-market vegetable area.

Assuming average weather and yields, fall production may be slightly improved from a year earlier when shipments from Florida were reduced for the second consecutive year by hurricane damage. During the fall (October-December) quarter, shipments of Florida fruits and vegetables declined 26 percent from the previous year and 43 percent from two years earlier.

Georgia, which suffered a 25-percent reduction in fall volume in 2004, rebounded last year with volume well above both 2004 and 2003. Although Georgia's primary shipping season is during the late spring and early summer, fall-season fresh-market vegetable production has expanded over the past several years. In addition to various Southern greens, Georgia now ships substantial volumes of snap beans, cabbage, sweet corn, cucumbers, bell peppers, and eggplant during the fall.

Vegetable shipments increase in October

Like many other vegetables, shipments of fresh-market tomatoes gradually increased in October following the short supplies of September that developed due to an unusually hot July in California and late summer-early fall rain. For example, the early October price for a 25-pound box of California large mature green tomatoes in the Chicago wholesale market was $31.50 per box ($1.26 per pound), compared to the more usual $12 per box (48 cents per pound) a year earlier.

The impact of the July heat — temperatures in California exceeded 110 degrees F for several days — depended on the stage of growth of types of tomatoes produced under cover. The heat damaged and stressed young tomato plants that were geared for harvest in September. Temperatures of more than 95 degrees F can prevent most varieties of tomatoes from flowering normally. They also cause bloom drop in flowering plants, which means plants need to reset flowers — a process that takes about two weeks under normal weather conditions.

The heat also accelerated the growth of older tomato plants, causing bunching of harvest and disrupting the normal flow from fields timed for certain market windows. All of these impacts, which hit crops in California, Virginia, Michigan and other states, caused a gap in September-early October supplies.

By mid-October, Florida's fall crop, which also was delayed by heat and heavy rains, began shipping, easing f.o.b. shipping-point prices. Damage to Mexico's winter vegetable area from Hurricane Lane in mid-September was limited, with little impact expected on the volume of U.S. tomato imports this coming winter.

Spinach market slowed

Movement of fresh-market spinach remains slow and uncertain following resumption of shipments after a national food safety outbreak. Nearly 200 reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection across 26 states were tied to fresh-bagged spinach. Based on epidemiological and laboratory evidence, all contaminated product (there were at least 11 confirmed contaminated product samples) was traced back to one central California firm, with no other firms or product from any other state implicated.

Although a potential source of the bacteria was traced to a livestock ranch near a spinach field, precisely how the spinach became contaminated is not known. The extent of market loss to the industry (covering the entire value chain from grower to retailer) will not be evident until a clearer picture emerges on the length of time required to rebuild consumer confidence.

In mid-October, spinach shipments were only about one-third that of a year earlier and growers remained uncertain about how much to plant. Given that the farm value of the U.S. fresh-market spinach crop averaged $199 million over the past three years (2003-05) and spinach is marketed year-round in the United States, a rough estimate of market loss for all growers would be approximately $3.5 million to $4 million for each week that spinach was not harvested.

The value of fresh-market spinach has more than doubled over the past decade as a surge in demand has encouraged greater production. California accounts for about three-fourths of the value of both the fresh and processing spinach crops. Grower cash receipts for fresh-market spinach during 2003-05 averaged about $200 million, exceeding those for such crops as squash, cauliflower, asparagus and green peas.

Like other cool-season leafy crops, most (about 96 percent) of the fresh-market spinach consumed in the United States is produced domestically. Although rising, imports, largely from Mexico, totaled about 23 million pounds in 2003-05, compared with 3 million pounds in 1993-05. During the last 10 years, exports, largely to Canada, have doubled to 55 million pounds (2003-05), with much of the growth occurring earlier this decade.