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Georgia’s 2006 vegetable season a volatile one

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia vegetable growers had a volatile 2006 growing season, says a University of Georgia expert. But for an industry ruled by strict supply and demand and the fickle fancy of Mother Nature, volatile is the norm.

Vegetable supplies were too high or just right, prices were low or pretty good this year, said Terry Kelley, a vegetable horticulturist with the UGA Cooperative Extension.

“The spring crop was anywhere from disastrous to tolerable,” he said.

Due to Georgia’s subtropical climate, vegetables can be grown almost year-round there. Farmers are able to plant two crops of warm-season vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, squash and snap beans.

Cool weather put the spring crop development behind, pushing it into the markets of vegetables grown further north, he said. Yields were good for peppers, for example, running as high as 32,000 pounds per acre. But pepper prices were bad due to an oversupply. Prices were as low as $6 per 23-pound box. Good prices would be double or triple that.

Georgia’s spring snap bean crop was good. Average yields are usually around 140 bushels per acre, Kelley said, but some places reported fields with yields as high as 250 bushels per acre.

Georgia watermelon growers saw both good yields and prices this year, he said. Yields were above the average of 35,000 pounds per acre. Prices didn’t reach the record of 24 cents per pound set in 2005. But they did stay above 10 cents per pound, which is good.

Georgia’s fall crop, which is planted in late July, was hit hard by hot weather, Kelley said.

“This held back the fall crop as tender transplants struggled in the heat to survive,” he said. “However, the fall crop has not been too bad for Georgia growers across the board.”

Yields have been good, and prices have been better than in the spring, he said.

Georgia and other U.S. vegetable farmers got some good international news recently regarding an important, but volatile, chemical fumigant they use to sterilize planting beds against diseases and problem weeds prior to planting.

Methyl bromide will continue to be available to them through at least 2008, he said.

In 1992, the United Nations Environmental Program began the phase-out of methyl bromide. The program was authorized by the Montreal Protocol, a treaty signed by the U.S. and more than 180 other countries to control ozone-depleting substances.

The phase-out was to be completed by Jan. 1, 2005. Existing stockpiles could be used, but the U.S. wasn’t allowed to import or produce methyl bromide after that.

A decision on November 3 by the Parties to the Montreal Protocol allows the United States to produce, through a critical-use exemption, about 827 metric tons of methyl bromide, about 18 percent of its 1991 baseline of 4,595 metric tons. An additional 3 percent can come from existing stocks, Kelley said.

“While this was not all that the U.S. delegation requested, it was considered an optimistic conclusion to the round of discussion,” said Kelley, who helped the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association prepare and submit its critical-use exemption papers.

The U.S. was granted its first exemption in 2003.

The supply of methyl bromide available to farmers will continue to decrease, Kelley said. “And as supply continues to dwindle, prices will rise.”

Georgia’s vegetable crop is worth about $850 million annually and ranks third or fourth in the United States, Kelley said.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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