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IN SEASON/RUSS PARSONS

Mexico Freeze Is

January 07, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Bad News

Brace yourself: The cost of eating has gone up and is getting ready to go even higher. A three-day freeze in central Mexico has crippled one prime growing area and heavily damaged another. As a result, vegetable prices will probably skyrocket during the next two weeks and will remain high until March.

"This is going to be quite a mess," says Bob Meyer, owner of Meyer Tomatoes, a grower-shipper with farms in California and Mexico. "There is going to be an extreme shortage of all vegetables."

Mexico supplies roughly 65% of the United States' winter vegetable needs. The mid-December freeze hit hardest in the growing area just south of Mexico City, which supplies produce to most of Mexico, immediately wiping out most of the produce grown there.

In Sinaloa, which supplies most of the U.S. crop, the damage was not as severe and its effects will take longer to appear. The freeze there lasted only about four hours, so vegetables that were near maturity were spared. Immature vegetables and plants just beginning to flower were damaged, though, so once the mature crops are harvested, there won't be much to replace them.

"In about two or three weeks, there will be a complete blank," Meyer says. "Prices will go out of sight. It's going to be quite a catastrophe."

Crops that will be particularly hard hit will be cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, green onions and eggplant. In some cases, the damage is already being felt. The wholesale price of zucchini, for example, has gone from $5 a case at the beginning of December to $30 this week. Mexican imports account for 95% of the squash sold in the U.S. in December and January. Wholesale prices for green onions have quadrupled; prices for bell peppers, eggplant and cucumbers have doubled, and tomatoes have gone up more than 50%.

Making matters even worse has been weather in the United States. Florida, which grows most of the rest of the winter harvest of those vegetables, has been hit hard by rain.

And California's Imperial Valley and the nearby growing area around Yuma, Ariz., have had unusually cold weather. Freezing temperatures have delayed the start of the lettuce harvest on several days. (Lettuce plants are fairly hardy and can survive being frozen, but if they're picked before they thaw completely, they will spoil quickly.) The wholesale price of iceberg lettuce has tripled since the start of December. Prices of broccoli and cauliflower, which grow in the same areas, have more than doubled.

*

Carolyn Olney of the Southland Farmers' Market Association reports that Regier Family Farms from Dinuba is selling sweet, seedless Satsumi mandarins. They are at the Santa Monica market on Wednesday, Costa Mesa and Redlands on Thursday, Torrance on Tuesday and Saturday and Pasadena on Saturday.

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