Harsh Florida Weather Hits Produce, Raises Prices

Freezing temperatures in December decimated Florida vegetables, raising wholesale prices through January, and limiting availability. The freeze affected the state's production of snap beans, cabbage, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive/escarole, bell peppers and other peppers, and squash, said Sterling Ivey, press secretary, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Except for crops

Freezing temperatures in December decimated Florida vegetables, raising wholesale prices through January, and limiting availability.

The freeze affected the state's production of snap beans, cabbage, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive/escarole, bell peppers and other peppers, and squash, said Sterling Ivey, press secretary, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Except for crops in the extreme south of Florida, 100% of the state's sweet corn, snap beans, and eggplant crops, and 90% of cucumbers and squash crops were destroyed, said Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable extension agent with the University of Florida.

Tomatoes and peppers fared better than other produce with an approximate 50% survival rate, and unless the weather gets worse, tomatoes are in better shape than last year. “Last year we were just wiped out, and there were just no tomatoes for six to eight weeks,” said McAvoy, recalling “No Tomatoes” signs in Burger King and other fast food chains. “It's better than last year, but it's still not good.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture estimated the economic impact of the freeze as $370 million in total direct, indirect and induced losses; $155 million in cash receipt losses; and $21 million in lost taxes to government budgets. The department anticipates that these numbers may increase when it knows more about the damage to tomato and citrus crops.

McAvoy also believes this number will increase significantly as the University of Florida estimated over $200 million in damages to southwest Florida alone.

In an emergency order, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam extended relaxed trucking restrictions for the fourth time to Jan. 14 for trucks transporting freeze-vulnerable crops. “The extension will give the agricultural industry time to harvest crops without overloading processing facilities,” the state Department of Agriculture said in a press release.

McAvoy said the relaxed trucking restrictions mainly help the citrus and sugarcane industries. The longer those crops sit after freezing, the lower the sugar and juice yields, and the worse the quality of the juice.

“Those losses are really hard to estimate until you actually run it through a mill or through a juice plant with sugar and citrus because until you squeeze that orange, you don't know exactly what you're going to get,” he said.

However, the USDA's Jan. 18 Freeze Damage and Maturity Results Report is optimistic about citrus survival, reporting no damage to over 96% of grapefruit and no damage to 54 to 87% percent of oranges, depending on the growth stage.

Florida produce's primary market is the Northeast, with Mexico typically shipping to the Midwest and California, due to transportation costs, McAvoy told SN.

Retailers may find themselves with few options for freeze-affected crops. Publix Super Markets [2] has limited corn and tomato supplies until March, said Maria Brous, spokesperson for the Lakeland, Fla.-based chain. Publix's suppliers told the retailer that volume for crops such as beans and peppers is expected to increase as the newly replanted crops start producing in early February.

In New York, wholesale prices for Florida yellow sweet corn rose from $13 to $14 per 4.5 dozen in early December to $28 to $30 in mid-January; Florida cucumbers rose from $10 to $14 per package in early December to $24 to $26 in mid-December; and green cubanelle peppers rose from $15 to $18 per package in early December to $20 to $21 per package in mid-January, according to the USDA Market News Portal.