Spring Cold Adds to Woes for Eastern U.S. Fruit CropsAlan Bjerga
A cold snap gripping the U.S. East Coast today is bad news for farmers whose peaches and other spring crops are already suffering the effects of bad weather.
Consumers, too, may feel the impact of poor growing conditions in states such as California, the biggest fruit and vegetable producer, and South Carolina.
“Prices are going to be up in May and June,” said Chalmers Carr, president of Titan Farms LLC, a 5,000-acre farm in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, that sells peaches in the eastern U.S. through Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kroger Co. and other grocers. “Finding southern peaches on a store shelf is going to be a challenge.”
Fresh fruit and vegetable prices already increased 1.5 percent so far in the first three months of this year, according to the Labor Department. A lack of rain in California, crop disease among Florida oranges and other disruptions have pushed costs up faster than overall inflation, with orange-juice futures traded in New York at a two-year high last week.
Excessive rain and cold prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare disasters this year in New York and North Carolina. Florida is the nation’s third-biggest fruit and vegetable producer after California and Washington, while Georgia is fourth in vegetables and sixth in fruit. New York is the fifth-biggest U.S. grower of fruit and sixth in vegetables.
“We’re all competing for our piece of the pie. Hopefully there will be enough pie,” said Santo Maccherone, co-owner of Circle M Farms, a 150-acre operation in Salem, New Jersey, he runs with his son that sells nectarines and peaches locally. In any season, “you really never know what you’ll make until the check clears,” he said.
The U.S. last month recorded its lowest average temperature for March since 2002, according to government data. Losses from a late-March frost in southeastern states won’t be known for about a week, said Martin Eubanks, South Carolina’s assistant agriculture commissioner.
“We had some impact on a lot of crops across the board,” with effects varying depending on where each was in the growing cycle, Eubanks said. “We’re just walking through it, trying to see where we are.’”
South Carolina is the nation’s No. 2 peach producer, behind California. Georgia, where license plates show a picture of a peach, is a distant No. 3, followed by New Jersey.
Only 9 percent of South Carolina’s peach crop was rated “good” or “excellent” in the week ended April 13, according to USDA data, while 74 percent of the rye crop and 80 percent of winter wheat, two of the state’s other spring products, earned similar ratings.
The decrease in supply nationwide will effect prices, said Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economics Solutions, an agricultural consultant in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Demand for vegetables and fruits are fairly inelastic. When you need them, you need them,” he said. “People will be seeking out alternative supplies.”