The outlook for fresh vegetables this winter indicates reduced acreage and supplies, according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook Report.

At the same time, demand is expected to be soft as consumers remain conservative with regards to eating out and purchasing premium products such as hothouse and organic vegetables.

Although the winter price outlook is uncertain (given average weather), it favors steady to slightly higher prices compared with the relatively modest levels experienced a year earlier. As a result, growers and shippers may face a cost-price squeeze, with input prices this winter still relatively high, especially for fertilizer, chemicals, land rent and seed.

During the fourth quarter of 2008, fresh-market vegetable prices at the point of first sale (largely the shipping point) have generally been running above the relatively strong levels of a year earlier. A weak economy and rising unemployment have reportedly slowed traffic within the foodservice sector, but weaker demand has been more than offset by weather-reduced shipments, helping to maintain price strength.

Fresh vegetable prices were pushed higher as shipments were reduced in November by a combination of lower fall-season acreage, delayed planting caused by heavy late summer and early fall rains, cool weather in the desert Southwest, which delayed the start of harvest in November by about a week, and cold fall weather in the Southeast, which damaged some crops and slowed growth of others.

Yields were cut for crops such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and bell peppers.

The volume of fresh vegetable and melon market shipments declined 12 percent from a year earlier in November and follows a 4-percent decline in October. Shipping-point prices are expected to average 5 to 10 percent above a year earlier during the fourth quarter — led by higher prices for bulb onions, carrots, cucumbers and sweet corn. Prices are expected to average below a year-earlier for tomatoes, cantaloupes and snap beans. The market situation during November 2008 for a few of the leading fresh-market vegetable crops compared with a year earlier was as follows:

Carrots

• Shipment volume (91 percent domestic) was down 21 percent from a year ago.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 24.6 cents per pound — up 56 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail prices for baby carrots averaged $1.41 per pound (up 1 percent from a year earlier), with organic selling for $1.80 per pound.

• January-October import volume was up 10 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is forecast to be 8.6 pounds in 2008, down 4 percent from 2007.

Celery

• Shipment volume (99 percent domestic) was down 8 percent from a year earlier.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 17.7 cents per pound — down 5 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail prices averaged $1.22 per bunch, up 8 percent from 2007.

• January-October import volume was down 7 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is projected to be 6.4 pounds in 2008, about the same as in 2007.

Sweet corn

• Shipment volume (93 percent domestic) was up 34 percent from a year earlier.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 32.7 cents per pound — up 59 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail price averaged $0.40 per ear, down 7 percent from 2007.

• January-October import volume was up 15 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is projected to be 9.0 pounds in 2008, down 2 percent from 2007.

Cucumbers

• Shipment volume (23 percent domestic) was down 24 percent from a year ago.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 49.0 cents per pound — up 123 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail prices averaged $0.64 each, up 10 percent from 2007.

• January-October import volume was up 10 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is projected to be 6.4 pounds in 2008, up 1 percent from 2007.

Head lettuce

• Shipment volume (96 percent domestic) was down 12 percent from a year ago.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 18.2 cents per pound — up 5 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail prices averaged $0.92 per head (up 7 percent), with romaine selling for $1.06 per head.

• January-October head lettuce import volume was up 18 percent from a year ago.

• Per capita use is projected to be 20.1 pounds in 2008, down 1 percent from 2007.

Onions (bulb)

• Shipment volume (85 percent domestic) was down 20 percent from a year ago.

• Prices at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 11.0 cents per pound — up 134 percent from the lows of a year earlier.

Market News retail prices for yellow onions averaged $1.79 per 3-pound.

Market News retail prices for yellow onions averaged $1.79 per 3-pound bag (up 8 percent from 2007), with sweet yellow onions selling for $1.26 per pound.

• January-October import volume was down 23 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is forecast to be 20.4 pounds in 2008, down 6 percent from 2007.

Sweet (bell) peppers

• Shipment volume (69 percent domestic) was down 14 percent from a year ago.

• F.o.b. shipping point prices for green bell peppers averaged 49 cents per pound — up 2 percent from a year earlier.

Market News retail prices for green bell peppers averaged $1.44 per pound (up 10 percent from 2007), with red bell peppers selling for $2.53 per pound.

• January-October import volume was up 1 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is projected to be 9.4 pounds in 2008, up 4 percent from 2007.

Squash

• Shipment volume (17 percent domestic) was down 17 percent from a year ago.

• F.o.b. shipping point prices for zucchini averaged 85 cents per pound — double that of a year earlier.

Market News retail prices for zucchini squash averaged $1.31 per pound, up 8 percent from a year earlier.

• January-October import volume was down 4 percent from a year earlier.

• Per capita use is projected to be 4.5 pounds in 2008, up 2 percent from 2007.

Tomatoes, all (excluding grape/cherry)

• Shipment volume (69 percent domestic) was down 2 percent from a year ago.

• Greenhouse tomato shipments were up 14 percent from 2007.

• Prices for field-grown product at the point of first sale (largely grower or f.o.b. shipping point) averaged 66.7 cents per pound — up 14 percent from a year ago.

Market News retail prices for field-grown round tomatoes averaged $1.67 per pound (down 6 percent from 2007), with organic selling for $2.99 per pound.

• January-October import volume (all tomatoes) was up 5 percent from a year earlier. Greenhouse/hothouse tomato imports were up 16 percent.

• Per capita use is projected to be 20.0 pounds in 2008, down 1 percent from 2007.

e-mail:phollis@farmpress.com