The early outlook for spring-season fresh-market and melon plantings indicates a small decline from a year earlier as growers respond to generally lower prices received last spring and this winter, according to USDA.

Due to several incidences of torrential winter rains along California's south and central coasts, supply gaps for some leafy crops may appear during the early spring season, predicts the latest USDA Vegetables and Melons Outlook.

The heavy rains flooded fields and slowed or stopped planting and other field activities, which could throw off the harvest timing of many early spring vegetable crops. As a result, the spring season could begin with a period of high shipping-point prices for several commodities.

If these gaps begin to appear when produce demand is usually strong, shipping-point prices could exhibit even stronger temporary surges, states USDA. Although prices are expected to moderate as volume increases seasonally later in the spring, shipping-point prices could average as much as a tenth above those of a year earlier during the April-June quarter.

Area planted to spring-season onions is estimated to have risen 1 percent in 2005 compared with a year earlier and is 12 percent higher than in 2003. The estimated 40,300 acres is the most planted since 2000 and follows a large and low-priced fall storage onion crop.

Among the four onion-producing states, only Georgia planted fewer acres — down 9 percent — from a year ago. Given the expected decline in Vidalia onion area, Texas growers will have the most planted area this year, with an increase in acreage of 5 percent. The crop is in generally good condition in all growing areas with no weather or disease problems noted thus far.

Assuming no unusual weather or disease problems arise this spring, spring-season onion yields could reach trend levels of 328 million cwt. If trend yields are attained, they would be the fourth highest on record but still would be 3 percent below the strong yields experienced last year. Trend yields and average acreage abandonment would result in a crop similar to that of a year ago.

Onion prices — currently running a third lower than the favorable levels experienced last winter — will increase in the coming months as storage supplies are exhausted and the spring crop is marketed. The domestic spring onion crop will account for about 4 pounds of the estimated 20 pounds of onions that the average American will consume.