The start of the Florida tomato season was delayed by unusually warm weather and heavy rains during September and October, but shipments were expected to return to normal by mid- to late-December according to the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook Report.

The 2011 fall fresh-market tomato prices are above their fourth quarter 2010 average but still remain below the very high freeze-related levels of early 2011.

Grower prices for field-grown tomatoes were expected to be up 5 percent from the fourth quarter of 2010 even as the third-quarter prices were not as strong as the previous year.

In the onion market, shipping volumes were strong in 2011.

Onion prices during the fourth quarter were down compared with both the same time a year earlier and the summer and fall months of 2011. Total fresh-onion shipments were down slightly in the third quarter compared with 2010, but volume was up early in the fourth quarter of 2011.

The outlook for fresh vegetables this winter indicates greatly improved supplies and much lower prices. At the same time, demand is expected to continue to slowly improve as consumers cautiously return to away-from-home meals.

Assuming no freeze damage this winter, the seasonal price outlook strongly favors prices that are well below those of the freeze-affected highs of a year earlier.

In general, according to the report, shipping-point prices for vegetables are down from a year ago, although fresh-market prices have maintained their levels better than prices in the processed markets.

High early-spring levels (February and March) kept the 2011 average grower price index for all commercial vegetables above the comparable 2010 average for the first 11 months.

However, since July, the average 2011 price index has been almost 15 points below 2010 as fall prices weakened.

When reported quarterly average prices are compared, only cucumber and tomato prices are above their 2010 levels. With reduced shipments, grower prices for cucumbers have increased substantially from the very low prices reported during fourth quarter of 2010.

During the fourth quarter of 2011, the shipping-point price for U.S. cantaloupes will average approximately 17 cents per pound — about one-fourth lower than a year earlier.

The U.S. market is transitioning to imported melons, largely from Central America, with the early winter outlook favoring average supplies and lower prices than a year earlier.

Driven largely by fresh-market vegetables, which comprise about 65 percent of total vegetable value, a 1.6-percent average annual growth is projected for the farm value of vegetables and melons over the next decade, according to USDA.