Ever wonder why you can get fresh vegetables at the store in late November? If you know a farmer or gardener in the area, you know those Thanksgiving green beans didn't come from these parts.
Most of your winter veggies come from or through Florida. And this year if you don't see fresh green beans at the store or if tomatoes are about $5 a pound, you have Wilma to blame.
Hurricane Wilma raked across southwest Florida -- often called the winter vegetable capital of the nation -- in October. Beans, peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits, and sugar cane had just been planted or were just starting to come up. When such fields get 14 inches of rain and 100-mph winds, it doesn't go well for the produce.
Wilma flooded fields, blew over citrus trees, knocked fruit to the ground, destroyed packing houses, and ripped apart greenhouses, tearing up tender young vegetable plants that had yet to be planted. And all the various hurricanes of 2005 have drawn labor away from picking and into cleaning up.
"It's an agriculture disaster," Gene McAvoy, a regional vegetable agent, told a Naples, Florida, newspaper. "It could not have come at a worse time if you planned it."
Since southwest Florida supplies more than half the nation's winter vegetable supply -- including all its green beans -- you'll be noticing the Wilma effect at stores.
As the storm approached, there were more than 15,000 acres of vegetable plants in the ground worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Florida Agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson has estimated total damage to the state's farms at more than $1 billion.
Among citrus crops, grapefruit took the biggest hit, with as much as 80 percent of the fruit on the ground. Some groves in the region lost more than 70 percent of their early- and mid-season oranges, and 50 to 60 percent of the Valencia crop was on the ground.
Tomatoes suffered as well. There could be a 90 percent loss of tomato production in the area because of Wilma. Other reports from Florida indicate that sweet corn, lettuce, radishes, and cucumber were wiped out by Wilma.
Farmers can replant some crops and start over -- after they clean up and rebuild and find labor to help out -- but even then, it will be at least a couple months before anything shows up at the stores. In the meantime, as supply shrinks, prices will go up.
Ricco Gaia, sales manager for Palazola Produce Company in Memphis, says he's seen a big effect in the wholesale vegetable market, though in different ways from last year. "Last year tomatoes were $50 a case, when they're usually $12. This year, the tomato market has stayed firm so far, but bell peppers, cucumbers, and green beans have tripled or quadrupled.
"Hurricanes don't just damage the crops," he says. "When the electricity goes out, the packing houses close down, and then people have to go to alternate places to get product. It takes weeks to get back to any kind of normalcy. Plus, shippers are out of business. A lot of things come through Florida ports from South America, so even asparagus and limes from South America are in shortage."
As an example, Gaia says that cases of green beans, which normally go for $18, are now at $40. "We'll see this for a few more weeks," he predicts.
The increases will be passed on to consumers, though some might opt out of certain vegetables. Gaia says, for example, that he's afraid to even order green beans at current prices for fear he can't resell them to his restaurant and grocery clients.
"It's a real volatile market -- even more than oil, because our product goes bad," he says. "We can call in the morning, get a quote, then there's a hurricane report, and that afternoon we'll get a different quote."
Some local farmers might see a benefit from Wilma. Bryan Marinez, manager of the farmer's market at the Agricenter, says that last year local growers sold wholesale tomatoes and other crops to packers in Florida to help make up for hurricane losses. Tomatoes, for example, went for about twice as much as usual. He anticipates something similar will happen this year.