CHAMPAIGN, Ill. --- A nearly 50 percent increase in vegetable prices that has sent shoppers reeling in the produce aisle should ease in the coming weeks as farmers send grocers more tomatoes, lettuce and other crops.
Vegetable prices shot up last month after cold weather in the southern U.S. and Mexico destroyed much of the winter vegetable supply, the Commerce Department said. From tomatoes in Florida to lettuce in Arizona, fruit and vegetables became frostbitten, and prices rose for the produce farmers could save.
Costs should come down soon as crops farmers planted after the winter freezes start to reach stores, said growers, grocers and analysts. Grocers also switch this time of year to crops planted for spring, said Jody Shee, an analyst for market research firm Mintel.
"Unless there are any other weather issues, the prices should bounce back pretty soon," she said.
Vegetables imported from Mexico often offset losses in the U.S. during winter freezes, but that wasn't the case this year because the cold stretched further south than usual, said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
The result was the biggest one-month increase in overall U.S. food prices since 1974 and the steepest rise in U.S. inflation in nearly two years.
Though shoppers are paying more, farmers in the Sun Belt say they haven't been getting rich. Most lost at least some of their crops, and they said the higher prices have just been helping make up for it.
Bob Spencer, a co-owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Fla., said two freezes in December left him with about 30 percent to 40 percent of the crop he usually gets on the 4,000 acres he planted this year. But the loss hasn't been devastating, what with tomatoes selling for more than $30 for a 25-pound box in some cases, at least double what farmers usually get, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"As long as you had some product through this winter period, you're going to be able to come through and make money," Spencer said.
Prices for a handful of crops that take longer to grow, such as melons, could take a longer to drop, said John McClung, the head of the Texas Produce Association, a group of produce shippers and growers in the Rio Grande Valley in deep south Texas.