Hurricanes May Shake Vegetable Prices

Shoppers may be faced with wide price swings for fresh vegetables this fall and winter because of losses and disruptions caused by the hurricanes that devastated Florida last month and then swept north to Georgia.

"We're probably going to see the most erratic supply and price structure ever," University of Florida economics professor John J. VanSickle (search) said Monday.

VanSickle said Florida was in the early stages of its growing season when hurricanes Charlie and Frances hit and then Hurricane Jeanne (search) "just kind of wiped up."

Florida tomato growers say the hurricane pounding may have wiped out more than half their crop and normal supplies may not resume until December, according to "The Packer," a produce industry magazine.

Florida, which has a $1.3 billion vegetable crop, is a major supplier of tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers during the cold months.

"In the dead of winter — November to March — we produce about 80 percent of the ... vegetables grown in this country," said Terence McElroy, spokesmanFlorida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (search). "Even Southern California is too cold."

Florida vegetable growers normally plant in phases so they can maintain a steady flow of vegetables as the crops reach maturity. But the hurricanes disrupted the cycle, setting the stage for high prices during periodic shortages and extremely low prices during periods of oversupply, VanSickle said.

"It's going to be feast and famine," he said. "It's going to be a very erratic price year for farmers and consumers."

As of Friday, tomato prices were already double what they were a year ago, The Packer reported, citing Agriculture Department figures.

In Georgia, which has a $650-million-a-year vegetable crop that ranks third behind California and Florida, economists have estimated losses from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne at $145 million.

Peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers suffered most from the storms' high wind and torrential rain, but eggplants, sweet corn and snap beans also were affected, said University of Georgia horticulturist Terry Kelley.

Nate Branch, a vegetable broker at the Thomasville State Farmers Market in Georgia, said squash that normally retails for $1 per pound has jumped to $2.99 a pound.

"When you have four or five hurricanes come through, it tends to cause a lot of problems," he said. "It took a lot of crops out. Even on stuff that didn't get killed, yields are way, way off."

Branch said Georgia lost between 60 and 70 percent of its vegetables, and he's having trouble getting enough snap beans, cucumbers, eggplants, squash, bell peppers and zucchini squash.

"The product isn't here to go to market," he said.