John Masiunas is a professor of crop sciences at Illinois.
Photo by David Riecks, ACES-ITCS
Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.
Fresh produce supplies took a hit this winter amid a lingering freeze in Florida and a devastating earthquake that slowed exports from Chile. Crop sciences professor John Masiunas examines the implications for U.S. consumers in an interview with News Bureau Business & Law Editor Jan Dennis.
How might produce supplies in the U.S. be affected by the freeze in Florida and shipment disruptions stemming from a massive earthquake in Chile?
The Florida freeze from Jan. 3 to 12 was severe enough to reach Miami. It affected the important winter vegetable production areas of Belle Glade, Immokalee and Homestead. The freeze killed maturing vegetables and delayed planting. There were a few price increases, shifts to supplies from Mexico and California, and some fresh vegetables unavailable or with poorer quality. Although the freeze hit central Florida, the citrus crop was largely unaffected. The central Florida strawberry crop was delayed but not killed.
The Chilean earthquake has resulted in delays of shipments of Chilean grapes but is unlikely to affect supplies of temperate fruits.
What fruits and vegetables will be most affected by these events, and how soon might shortages be apparent in American grocery stores and other retail outlets?
During the winter and early spring, southern Florida produces much of the fresh yellow squash, green beans, tomatoes and sweet corn available in grocery stores. Central Florida also produces strawberries. The freeze has already limited availability of large tomatoes used by restaurants. The Wall Street Journal reported March 4 that Wendy's restaurants are requiring customers to ask for tomatoes on their sandwiches. On March 9, the Packer, a produce trade newspaper, reported that Subway restaurants are only using two tomato slices instead of three on its 6-inch sandwiches. The Florida freeze delayed strawberry harvest, but shortages and price increases were avoided because of California and Mexico supplies. In February, Mexican production also replaced Florida-grown fresh green beans and sweet corn, although consumers may have noticed periodic shortages and poorer quality.
During January through April, Chile supplies grapes, nectarines, peaches and plums. Fifty-five million boxes of Chilean table grapes enter the US market each year. The earthquake left table grape plantations mostly unharmed but disrupted electricity, roadways and port facilities, slowing exports. Most grape production is north and inland of the region with earthquake damage. According to reports, port facilities and roads used to export grapes should be restored in the next few weeks. Also, Chilean grape production was ending with Mexico and California grape crops starting harvest. Thus, the direct impact on temperate fruit supplies will be minimal.
How much of a price increase might U.S. consumers see?
Consumers may have already noticed increased prices. The freeze caused higher prices for grape tomatoes, produced largely in Florida, but did not affect Roma tomato prices because of large supplies from Mexico. Wholesale sweet corn prices in Chicago markets increased from $2.90 to $8 per dozen, with production shifting to Mexico. After the Chilean earthquake, there was a 10 percent increase in wholesale grape prices that should ease as production shifts to California and Mexico.
Could produce be grown regionally in the U.S. to avert these kinds of disruptions, while also easing the environmental impact of shipping products across the country or around the world?
Our food choices are important! During the winter, fresh fruits and vegetables are shipped thousands of miles to reach our dinner tables. Eating regionally grown and seasonal fruit and vegetables will improve food security and reduce environmental impacts. For example, green beans and sweet corn are grown and processed in Illinois and Wisconsin. In January and February, purchasing frozen or canned green beans and sweet corn greatly reduces food miles. High-tunnel and greenhouse technologies allow Illinois production of leafy greens and other hardy vegetables almost year round. Another way to reduce shipping is to select Illinois- or Michigan-grown and stored apples instead of buying Chilean-grown peaches or nectarines. Consumer choices can build a secure, largely regional food system.