Fresh-market tomato prices have been on a rollercoaster as the effects of the February freeze and the cool, wet spring have played havoc with growth and shipping windows.

Shipping-point prices were well above average through early April ($23.95 per 25-pound carton) and began to slip in mid-April before bottoming out with a surge in supply from central Florida in late April and early May ($7.95 per carton).

Once south Florida shipments began to decline seasonally and imports from Mexico also began to tail off, tomato prices began to move higher, reaching $17.95 a carton in mid-May before settling around $15 a carton through early June.

As the season in central Florida began to wind down, seasonal shipments began slowly from west Florida and Baja California followed by movement from southeastern Arkansas and South Carolina in early to mid-June.

According to preliminary data, Florida’s tomato shipments (all types) during January-May of 2011 were 65 percent greater than a year earlier, when a freeze devastated the crop.

However, in 2011, a hard freeze also hit Mexico resulting in a January-May reduction of tomato import shipments from that key supplier of 21 percent from a year earlier. The net result was little change in total tomato shipments during this period compared with a year earlier.

Prices paid by vegetable and melon growers for production inputs have been moving higher for the last four quarters. According to an index calculated by ERS using items pertinent to vegetable production (leaves out farm-origin inputs like feed and livestock), average input prices paid by vegetable and melon growers increased 7 percent during the first quarter (January-March) of 2011 and are expected to rise 11 percent during the second quarter.

In 2010, input prices for products used by vegetable and melon farms rose by about 1 percent.

Prices paid for most farm inputs are rising faster than the overall inflation rate in the U.S. economy of 2 to 3 percent.

Over the first five months of 2011, prices paid by all farmers for inputs sourced from outside the farm sector (e.g., energy, fertilizer, machinery, supplies, etc.) are up 11 percent from a year earlier. However, the value of these non-farm-origin inputs is 31 percent higher than five years ago.

Much of this is a reflection of high energy prices and competitive world demand for farm inputs such as chemicals, seed and fertilizer.

So far in 2011, input prices are higher for most all major items except for herbicides. Since bottoming out in late 2009, fertilizer prices have been trending higher and remain well above a year earlier.

Prices for nitrogen, potash, and phosphate have continued to creep higher this spring with rising energy prices and steady worldwide demand.

phollis@farmpress.com