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Delayed by heavy rains at 'exactly wrong time,' Florida fall crop looks promising

by Chip Carter | November 05, 2009
Heavy rains in August and September hampered Florida fall planting, resulting in crops that are coming to market a couple of weeks later and a bit smaller than usual but otherwise unscathed, according to growers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Persistent tropical weather throughout late summer delayed planting and harvesting and resulted in sporadic damage, but most crops are arriving at market now in fair-to-excellent condition, if a bit undersized.

The rainfall did not delay just the Florida crop - it moved in a "rainbelt" across parts of Mexico as well, said Chuck Weisinger of Weis-Buy Farms in Fort Myers, FL. "The rain came at exactly the wrong time. There's an old Hassidic saying, 'Man plants, God laughs.' "

"It seems like the only consistent thing we're experiencing is inconsistency," said Lloyd Rosen of Plant City produce broker Wm. Manis & Co. "Weather patterns are definitely changing."

On the flipside, fall rains had little impact on Florida citrus production. "We haven't had rain set in where we couldn't harvest three or four days in a row," said Kevin Swords, Florida sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales in Fort Stuart, FL. "Mother Nature has cooperated with us there." In fact, the same late rains that hampered other Florida crops promise a boon for the state's citrus in coming weeks. "It will size up," Mr. Swords said. "The fruit will get larger as the season goes on."

In early August, Florida growers started preparing fields, tilling, fumigating and laying plastic - then the rains came. And came. And came. Growers had to wait impatiently until late September before the almost daily torrential downpours came to an end and gave fields a chance to dry out enough for planting.

Some locations were spared the deluge, and mid-August planting began sporadically around the state. But areas like Hastings, along the Atlantic coast in the central peninsula, had standing water in fields, preventing planting of cabbage. In southwest Florida, growers had to pump standing water from low-lying fields. Growers in the southern peninsula began preparing land and planting in July, while land prep began in the Big Bend and central regions in mid-August. Most growers in the state were back on schedule by mid- September.

The wet conditions not only delayed planting, but also increased pestilence problems, sending growers scrambling to deal with mold, mildew, fungus and insects.

By late September, most crops were set and "a dribble" of tomatoes and squash began to come to market, according to Mr. Weisinger.

Economic factors also play a role in this season's crop report.

Gary Wishnatzki of Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City, FL, said consumer staples have remained strong while "crops with high restaurant use are affected more." For instance, strawberry and blueberry prices have held up well, despite an increase in volume over last year, because they are popular home items. Peppers are more often used by chefs than home cooks and so that market has been soft.

According to Mr. Rosen, this fall's squash market "has been so strong because last year's was so poor growers didn't plant more this year." And while the vegetable market may be off a bit, Mr. Rosen agreed that this year's strawberry market "is getting stronger" and could be very sweet indeed - especially with a new variety that could be in stores in limited quantities as soon as Thanksgiving.

Last year, Florida strawberry growers introduced a new variety that came in earlier in the season, but did not taste particularly good, Mr. Rosen said. This year, that berry has been tweaked into the Early Dawn variety, which not only has a vastly improved flavor profile, but may be ready early enough that there will be the "slightest smattering" in stores for Thanksgiving, "a few more for Christmas, and then, if Mother Nature cooperates, berries for champagne at New Year's."

The USDA released its fall Florida crop forecast, and reported consistent increases in acreage for primary crops.

Florida farmers planted 9,200 acres of snap beans for fall harvest in 2009, an increase of 700 acres from last fall's crop.

Cabbage harvest is forecast at 1,700 acres, 500 more than last year, though heavy rains in the three-county area where most cabbage is grown - Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns - could put a crimp in that projection.

Acreage of sweet corn - one of the few crops that benefited from the heavy rains - increased by 600 this fall to 6,100.

Cucumber acreage remained unchanged at 3,300 acres. Rains in the Panhandle and northern counties caused planting delays and some disease problems, but conditions in the southern peninsula have been favorable for a bumper crop.

Bell peppers dropped to 3,600 acres from 3,700 harvested last fall. Though the USDA reported that the crop looks good, some individual growers and brokers told The Produce News the rain damaged a significant portion of the early pepper crop.

Fall tomato acreage fell to 7,300 from 7,500 last year. According to the USDA, competition from imports, high input costs, uncertainty about fumigation options and urban encroachment in major growing areas have resulted in continued lower planted acreage compared to historic levels.