Reduced shipments have relieved some downward pressure on fresh vegetable prices from earlier in 2012, although prices for most vegetables still remain below levels from the previous year, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

Even with the realization of a hotter and drier summer than normal, the volume of fresh vegetables remains above 2011 levels.

There were reports of reduced summer plantings in response to low prices, and the July shipment volume of many fresh vegetables eased from highs of the previous month and earlier 2012. Total U.S. planted onion acreage declined almost 4 percent between 2011 and 2012.

Although most fresh vegetable prices at the point of first sale have rebounded from lows of early 2012, they are still well below prices in the second quarter of 2011, according to the report.

Average April to June 2012 prices for broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery and field tomatoes are all at least 25 percent below the previous year. Still the second quarter price index for all vegetables was more than 30 percent higher than first quarter 2012 with only asparagus, celery, sweet corn, and snap bean grower prices below averages from earlier in this year.

Overall volume of fresh vegetables was down 17 percent between June and July 2012. Based on prices reported to date for third quarter 2012, projections are for a slow increase in the overall vegetable grower price index driven by relatively sharp price increases for some commodities and more modest decreases in others.

Much of the fresh vegetable production is either irrigated and/or grown outside regions most affected by the extreme weather this past summer. In some cases, warmer-than-normal weather has accelerated the production of vegetable commodities.

New York reported its harvest of sweet corn, beans and tomatoes ahead of average and many other states were reporting good yields. July sweet corn shipments fell 62 percent compared with the previous month but remained almost 40 percent above shipments from July 2011.

Shipment volume remains high in herbs, Chinese cabbage, chile peppers, and Roma tomatoes (field-grown) where July 2012 totals were up over both the previous month and July 2011. As temperatures began to cool in September, conditions improved for fall vegetables.

Onion acreage down

Consistent with the trend since the early 2000s, total U.S. planted onion acreage declined almost 4 percent between 2011 and 2012.

The decrease was largest in plantings of spring onions. Despite a modest rebound in this category for 2011, the 2012 acreage was down almost 13 percent to less than 30,000.

On average, between 2000 and 2005, almost 40,000 acres had been planted to spring onions each year. Acreage planted in 2012 was down 27 percent in Texas and almost 7 percent in

Georgia but expanded slightly (3 percent) in California when compared with 2011.

Storage onion acreage expanded slightly in California for 2012, but remains below area planted prior to 2010.

Acreage planted to storage onions in other states continues to decline. Although total acreage planted to storage onions across all states was down 1 percent in 2012, a higher proportion harvested resulted in approximately 1 percent increase in acres harvested when compared with the previous year.

Across all spring and summer onion categories (storage and non-storage) harvested acreage decreased 3 percent in 2012.

July 2012 shipments of dry onions declined from the previous month and remains well below the volumes of 2011. Third-quarter prices for dry bulb onions typically drop off from spring levels.

While 2012 NASS reported grower prices reflect this pattern with a 14-percent decrease from second quarter 2012, prices remain well above (26 percent) prices from the third quarter of 2011. The August 2012 Producer Price Index (PPI) for dry bulb onions reflects a similar 28-percent increase over August 2011.

Just as they did when grower prices declined last winter, consumer prices lag the current upswing in grower prices. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for fresh-market vegetables fell almost 2 percent between July and August 2012 as the Producer Price Index (PPI) increased 8 percent.

The CPI for potatoes, tomatoes, and other vegetables continued to decline in August over July reports. Despite a month-over-month increase in CPI for lettuce, August 2012 saw the retail price index for tomatoes almost 5 percent below the previous year and the index for lettuce down 2.5 percent.

During the first eight months of 2012, consumer prices for fresh vegetables were down for almost all commodities when compared to the same period in 2011 (based on average retail advertised prices).

Price offerings for round field-grown, Roma (plum type), on-the-vine, and grape tomatoes remain 10 to 15 percent below the previous year. Advertised retail prices for lettuce were 7 to 9 percent lower while pepper, cucumber, and celery prices were down approximately 5 percent.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the first seven months of 2012, the volume of all fresh-market vegetable imports rose 5 percent over the same period a year earlier.

On the export side, 2012 U.S. fresh vegetable export volume through July increased 3 percent, continuing a modest growth trend from the previous year.

Fresh produce exports were mostly steady when compared with the previous year.

An exception was fresh broccoli where levels rebounded from 2011 lows.

phollis@farmpress.com