Produce industry weathering winter storms
While pockets of the nation were devastated by the late December cold front that enveloped much of the country and dipped into Mexico, it does not appear to have delivered a big blow to the supply-demand curve in terms of the fresh produce industry. At least that was the view from various industry members around the country.
Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development for Nickey Gregory Co., a wholesaler in Atlanta, reported that the firm is currently sourcing most of its supplies from the deserts in the Southwest, the Northwest and Florida. “We really haven’t had any issues getting product nor delivering them,” he said.
He did reveal that the cold front in the Southeast put an end to the wet veg production coming out of south Georgia, but they were winding down anyway. “Most of the wet veg have transitioned to Florida and it does not appear there was any major damage. I know there were a few problems with some strawberry patches in Florida, but it doesn’t look like they were hurt too bad.”
Scott said the biggest issue from the weather for Nickey Gregory is that the freezing temperatures wreaked havoc in the produce industry’s Atlanta State Farmers Market. “The pipes burst some time over the (Christmas) weekend, and we don’t have any water. We’ve had to close down our processing plant until they get the water back on,” he said. “Hopefully that will be soon.”
David Watson and Marco Serrano of Fresh Farms in Rio Rico, AZ, also reported minimal impact from the weather. “Our feeling is that the storms caused a lot of problems in the Northeast, but we didn’t experience any major issues in getting trucks up there,” said Watson. “Around the holiday you usually see a bit of a slowdown and we have seen that, but we think it is caused by the holiday more than the snowstorm. The snowstorms were off-setting and truck rates are higher but we have not seen a lot of disruption.”
In fact, Serrano said that when he came into the Fresh Farms office following Christmas, business was better than he expected. “We’re having a good week,” he said on Wednesday, Dec. 28. “We’ve got a lot of orders.”
He did note that the cold weather has slowed down production from Mexico for the past several weeks. “We have had a slower start than usual,” he said. “Corn is a week late; colored peppers are a week late. But by Monday (Jan. 2) we think we’ll have good supplies. In fact, for Bell peppers and cukes and most of our products we are expecting a very good January and February. Those will be our biggest months.”
From nearby, Michael DuPuis, quality assurance and public relations for Divine Flavor in Nogales, filed a very similar report. “I don’t think we are experiencing anything abnormal concerning West Mexico,” he said. “It is pretty typical for December and January to have cold weather and some crop delays.”
He said cucumbers are typically the first crop to be affected by below normal temperatures and that has occurred. He said Bell peppers have also been delayed but only slightly. DuPuis revealed that Divine Flavor produced steady supplies throughout December and volumes will pick up as they move into the second week of January. “We will be able to reload quickly once the weather gets warmer,” he said, adding that it is the cold nights that are causing the delays in volume.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, when DuPuis was being interviewed, the temperature reached 87 degrees in Culiacan during the day but at night it dropped to 51. He added that Divine Flavor sources from west Mexico as well as central Mexico and Baja California in the winter months precisely to be able to fill its customers’ needs when supplies are greatly influenced by the weather.
Tamara Wood, who handles communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, told The Produce News on Dec. 28 that the cold weather from the previous weekend does not appear to have done any further damage to the Florida citrus crop at large. She added there are some reports of isolated issues in the most northern citrus-growing regions of the state, but the industry is expecting no significant impact from that most recent event.
However, Wood did confirm that for several reasons, Florida is expecting its smallest citrus crop in many decades. The orange crop has been estimated at only about 20 million cartons with grapefruit expecting to check in with less than 2 million boxes. Citrus greening disease has wreaked havoc on volume for more than a decade and Hurricane Ian swept through Florida citrus country in September, cutting the crop forecast in half for the 2022-23 season.
One more report on the latest freeze in Florida also minimized the potential impact. In the weekly crop update newsletter from California Giant Berry Farms dated Dec. 28, the section on the company’s Florida strawberry crop reported: “Quality: Rain and freezing temperatures occurred over the weekend. Growers were prepared to freeze protect plants and are evaluating the effects. Early harvests show no apparent damage from the freeze or from the water used to protect the crop. Volume: Production has slowed slightly due to cooler weather.”
Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Director of Communications Christina Morton also offered a bit of clarity about the situation in the country’s most southeastern state. “This Christmas looked a little bit different for our growers and their families, as they worked around the clock to prepare for last weekend’s wintry weather,” she said. “Early reports indicate Florida fruit and vegetable growers were pretty fortunate considering how cold it got and for how long it hung around. In south Florida, the primary region in the state for vegetable production, temperatures stayed in the high 30s and growers did not experience freezing temperatures at all.”
But Morton added that some growers toward north Florida are still assessing their situation: “There may be impacts in certain pockets throughout that region but the extent of which will not be known for several days or weeks even.”