‘Devastating’ year for growers leads to higher produce prices in stores

Heads of cabbage cover the ground as far as the eye can see at Long & Scott Farms.

Some are softball-size, while others approach the girth of a soccer ball. The smaller heads are maturing too slowly, and there’s a risk they won’t be ready by the prime selling time of St. Patrick’s Day.

“Any time we have extremely hot weather and extremely wet weather, our costs go up and our yields go down,” farm manager Cade Easely said as he gave a tour of the field in this Orlando-area city.

Record heat and above-normal rainfall have played havoc with fruit and vegetable farming in Florida, making tighter supplies and higher prices likely for at least the next couple of months, agriculture experts say.

“What consumers are going to see at the grocery stores are less of the vegetables that they love to eat in the winter,” said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, which represents growers.

Long & Scott, whose pickling cucumbers and sweet corn also have suffered, is not the only Central Florida farm contending with the challenging weather. But the situation is even more dire in South Florida, which was pelted with nearly 8 1 / 2 inches of rain in four days in early December. Afterward, shipments of cucumbers, endive, escarole, radishes, squash, grape and Roma tomatoes plummeted. The estimated loss was $9 million.

“It’s been a devastating year,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Homestead Inc., Miami-Dade’s biggest tomato grower / packer. “It’s one of the worst years I’ve seen in the business, and I’ve been in it 33 years. It’s even worse than some of the freezes.” Tomato yields — the amount of tomatoes per acre — are about 30 percent of normal, he said.

The tight supply hits prices in the grocery. It also affects agricultural workers. Normally DiMare operations run five or six days a week during this high season, said DiMare; now his operations are running only two to three days per week.

The unseasonal torrents that began in December come on the heels of a historic November heat wave and a four-month fruit quarantine related to the oriental fruit fly that hit a variety of South Dade crops, including beans and squash. The quarantine was lifted in the Redlands and Homestead last week.

The result: At the end of January, 14 of 15 shipments of Florida crops tracked by the state were running behind, with celery, squash, cabbage, broccoli, strawberries, sweet corn and avocados among the hardest hit.

The Florida Department of Agriculture predicts that shortages will continue through late March or early April. Strawberry prices, for example, shot up in December and are 20 percent to 30 percent higher than last year.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” said David Hill, owner of Southern Hill Farms, a family-owned blueberry farm outside Orlando. “And when there is a lower supply, there normally is a higher price.”

Although plants need water, when they get too much it crowds out the oxygen in the soil and the roots cannot breathe, said Paul Orsenigo, co-owner of Growers Management, a Palm Beach County farm that grows corn, green beans and leafy vegetables.

Farmers then have to contend with the death of some plants and the decreased shelf life of others. Those deemed not marketable generally are tilled back into the earth or, if still edible, donated to a food bank.

“If the quality is not up to standard, you really can’t harvest it, pack it and ship it,” said Orsenigo, who sells his produce throughout Florida, the Southeast and Northeast.

Although Florida’s blueberry plants are bred to withstand the state’s heat, they still need some cold days for optimum fruit production, and they didn’t get enough late last year, Hill said.

This year Hill expects unpredictable yields and a season that will start a couple of weeks later than usual and drag on longer than usual.

For his commercial crop – he also offers pick-your-own – that means no peak harvest and the risk of losing professional pickers who want to follow other crops north into Georgia and North Carolina as they mature.

Most everyone in the industry agrees that the state this year will produce less than the 26 million pounds of blueberries it did last year, said Dudley Calfee, president of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. A lot is at stake.

“We’re the first in the country (each year) to have blueberries,” said Calfee, an independent blueberry consultant. “With the decline in citrus (because of citrus-greening disease), this may be an alternative for growers in the state.”

Strawberry growers have fared better, although the first crop ripened faster than usual because of the heat and produced one-third fewer berries than typical for January, said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

December’s rain, caused by an El Niño climate pattern, was a setback that forced farmers, who are concentrated in the Plant City area near Tampa, to discard many berries, but they hope to make up for the loss by picking through March.

“Any time you get 5 inches of rain in two days, that’s probably not good for any fruits,” Parker said.

Miami Herald business editor Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.