Jul 12, 2021
Multiple factors shape 2021 vegetable crop

Quirks of weather, pandemic and trade are shaping the year being experienced by vegetable growers throughout the country.

Statistics and officials paint a picture of a resilient industry facing challenges in the current season.

USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer said in a speech at the department’s agricultural outlook event that the year began with a sense of optimism.

“Despite continued challenges, markets are functioning well, and the food supply remains safe, abundant and affordable,” he said. “Commodity prices are strong …. We continue to focus on short-run navigation of a continuing pandemic alongside long-running challenges to improve agricultural productivity, grow overseas markets for U.S. products and maintain the U.S. position as having one of the lowest-cost, most abundant and most sustainably produced food supplies in the world.”

Apart from direct government farm payments, cash receipts for row crops and cattle – driven by the export market – were outpacing specialty crops, Meyer said.

Together, soybean and corn receipts are forecast to increase $16.1 billion (19%) in 2021, “more than offsetting declines in fruits/nuts, vegetables/melons and cotton,” he said in his speech.

“The Corn Belt is doing well but other parts are not,” he said in a press meeting later. “Farm income is actually falling, but when you look at things in cash receipts that are actually driving receipts higher, they are very traditional Corn-Belt grown and produced crops, and that’s because of Chinese demand, quite honestly.

“Folks that aren’t growing corn, soybeans, pork and beef, are going to have bigger declines in farm income. And you may even see positive increases in farm income across places in the Corn Belt. That is true. So you don’t (see) the increase in fruits and vegetable production, specialty crops production receipts.”

He added that those were all generalized statements that didn’t apply to regions that specialize in certain crops.

“It’s not the same across the country,” he said. “Absolutely, there is a geographic disparity.”

Here are some highlighted reports on the crop progress and markets from around the country:

Asparagus

Nationwide, in 2020, production of fresh-market asparagus was down 10%, according to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) Vegetables and Pulses Outlook.

In Michigan, asparagus production was underway by May 18. Peak volumes were expected to last from late May to early June.

The Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board wrote in a news release that the season, which is usually well underway by Mother’s Day, had been delayed by cool weather, and growers spent the extra time preparing fields, applying fertilizer and mowing.

“Because asparagus depends on weather, it does tend to be somewhat unpredictable,” Jamie Clover Adams, the new executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, said in the release.

Imported asparagus supply is also on the increase, with the Port of Miami reporting that it had imported 14,149,601 pounds in just the first three months of the calendar year, surpassing those same three months in 2020 by 13%, or 1,589,480 pounds.

Leafy greens

Among vegetable commodity categories, romaine leaf lettuce showed the highest gain in per-capita availability, up 17%, according to ERS’ report. California leaf lettuce production grew 22% in 2020, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Review.

The Arizona lettuce season that began in November finished shipping in April – about 15 different varieties were grown in the state, and for those six months, Arizona lettuce made up about 82% of the market, according to www.ArizonaLeafyGreens.org.

California produces lettuce year-round, but the Central Valley region’s production generally produces the crop from spring to fall. In April, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) Board endorsed new Pre-Harvest Testing guidance to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks associated with leafy greens.

Dan Sutton, chairman of the California LGMA, said in a news release that “we want to send a clear message to FDA that our industry is, in fact, taking additional measures to prevent outbreaks.”

The ERS noted in its report that lettuce is less susceptible to trade pressure from imports.

“Hardier cool-season fresh vegetable crops, such as lettuce, broccoli, spinach and celery, can withstand fluctuating winter temperatures that prevail in the deserts of California and Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas,” according to the ERS report. “Consequently, for cool-season crops, a smaller share of supply is imported during the winter and spring than for warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. But imports are also creeping higher for these hardier vegetables as demand rises (in the case of cauliflower and spinach) and salad shippers look to ensure a reliable alternate supply of leafy vegetables (e.g., leaf lettuce and romaine) to cover contractual arrangements in the event of weather anomalies.”

Onions

Per-capita availability of onions in 2020 increased by 8%, according to the ERS report.

In 2021, Texas onion growers endured a nine-day freeze, Feb. 11-20, after many onions had been planted. Texas, which accounts for about 2% of the U.S. vegetable production by area, has about 12,000 acres of bulb onions, where the crop is second only to potatoes.

“Most onions were already planted and account for a sizable volume of the spring sweet onion market,” according to the ERS report. “Most consist of the Texas 1015 sweet variety (analogous to the Vidalia onion) which command higher prices than the more pungent storage onion harvested in the fall and sold through April. The freeze may have damaged the more mature of these onions (as the tops would have been exposed) while the foliage on other onions may have been damaged to the point of stopping growth. Depending on how much smaller the surviving onions are this year, some price impact in the onion market may start in April when the spring season begins.”

Strawberries

The California Strawberry Commission (CSC) shared statistics in May from the data consulting firm IRI that showed retail strawberry sales up 15.9% from the previous months. The increase was second-highest among 11 commodity groups, second only to peppers.

According to the CSC’s 2021 acreage report:

“In response to increased consumer demand, all regions supplying North America have increased planted acres. Total California strawberry acreage reported for 2021 is 36,487. Fall planted acres, that reach peak production in late spring through early summer, increased 5.7%. For 2021, the variety mix continues to evolve, but with more modest changes in yield than were experienced from 2014-2018. Combined with warm, dry weather patterns common to La Niña conditions, there is a possibility of higher than projected volume in early spring (March) to early summer (June). Increased acres, higher yielding varieties and optimum weather may provide an opportunity for supply to meet high levels of consumer demand that are expected through 2021.”

The report also cited sources estimating plantings to be up in Florida’s Hillsborough County and Mexico’s central valley, while the Baja region of Mexico was estimated to stay the same.

Tomatoes

The ERS estimated that in 2020, the production of fresh-market bell peppers and tomatoes was each down 11%.

The market shows signs of improvement. According to IRI data in May, the peppers category grew retail sales by 18.4% over the previous 12 months, more than any other commodity during that time, while tomatoes were also up 13.8%.

On the processing side, “California tomato processors intend to contract for 12.1 million tons of tomatoes for processing into canned, frozen and dried products – up 7% from the 11.3 million tons produced a year earlier,” according to the ERS. “A year ago, the early California intentions report indicated a total of 12 million tons were planned by processors, but weather, periods of extreme heat and smoke from wildfires during the season reduced the final tally.

“This year may prove similar since the industry faces daunting challenges from irrigation water cutbacks/shortages due to low mountain snowpack this past winter, uneven/uncertain demand as the country and world struggle to emerge from the pandemic, relatively low tomato paste carryover and higher input costs.”

The ERS also anticipates an increase in demand for potatoes and processed tomato products in 2021 as pandemic restrictions are eased and the foodservice sector rebounds.

“In the year ahead, increased consumer spending on away-from-home meals will help buoy demand for vegetables, especially those with closer ties to foodservice meals such as french fries, tomato catsup and coleslaw,” according to the ERS.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor




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