Prices are expected to be well above average for at least the next month or two, with additional imports from places such as Mexico partially filling the market gaps that appear.

Until the December freeze, improved volume this past fall and a more orderly flow to the market had pulled fall shipping-point prices for fresh vegetables 10 to 15 percent below the record highs of a year earlier.

In October, prices averaged 10 percent lower while those through mid-November were down 15 percent.

With freeze damage in Florida and uneven growth in desert leafy crops, December’s fresh-market vegetable prices were expected to jump back to near the highs of a year earlier. Despite high December prices, this could still mark the first decline in fourth quarter fresh-market vegetable prices in the last five years and would be the first quarterly (any season) drop since the summer of 2009.

The fall season has been beset by a wide variety of weather-related supply issues over the last five years that have resulted in higher shipping-point prices. Even though average market prices may have been slightly lower this fall, they are still about 25 percent higher than five years ago.

For this fall, prices are expected to average below the extreme highs reached a year earlier for crops such as lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, celery, snap beans and cauliflower. Partly offsetting will be higher prices for bulb onions, cucumbers, cantaloupes and sweet corn.

Because of wide variations in temperatures, California and Arizona broccoli and cauliflower yields were below normal from mid-November into early December with prices tripling from the relatively low levels of the first half of November.

During the transition from the central California growing areas to the winter desert areas of southern California and Arizona, lettuce quality and volume was variable and prices increased. Iceberg lettuce prices increased from about $8 per carton of 24-film wrapped heads in mid-October to $24 in mid-November, before easing to about $12 in early December with increasing volume and slack post-Thanksgiving demand.

For most fresh fall-season vegetables from Florida, pre-freeze shipping-point prices for this last year had returned to more normal levels, which were much lower than the weather-induced highs of a year earlier. For example, during November, shipping-point prices in central Florida for fresh field-grown mature green tomatoes were relatively steady at $8 to $10 per 25-pound box. This was an average-to below average price for this time of year and contrasts with a year earlier, when low yields pushed prices over $25 a box.

Depending on the damage from the December freeze, the tomato market will likely see a quick turnaround from these pre-freeze lows. Mexican imports may now remain strong this winter, since last year’s high prices may have spurred additional tomato area in Mexico. With continued high unemployment, demand is likely to remain sluggish, particularly within the foodservice sector.

phollis@farmpress.com