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On frosty Florida and the price of bell peppers

Scene: the Pompano State Farmers Market, off Route I-95.Truckloads of beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, and other types of produce are being bought and sold for shipment north in refrigerated trucks.

But, with temperatures dipping into the 20s in some areas last week and again Sunday night, offerings are limited -- and expensive.

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The nation's winter "salad bowl," located in this area, is still in the process of recovering from a cold snap that will almost certainly mean higher food prices for consumers in the North.

Preliminary estimates for the area put the crop damage in the millions of dollars. In Palm Beach County, for example, the local government estimates crop losses will exceed $22.5 million.

Tomatoes are being offered for sale at as much as $13 per 20-pound box. Only a few weeks ago tomatoes were being sold for as low as $5 a box.

And green beans, says Jerry Levy, president of the Van Buren County Fruit Exchange, Inc., are selling for $25 a bushel, "when you can find them." A week ago, green beans sold for $10 a bushel.

Bell peppers have gone from $12 for a bushel box to $15 inside of a week.

For consumers, these higher prices will quickly be reflected in retail prices. Davie F. Ledbetter, who works at the Van Buren County Fruit Exchange, estimaes that tomatoes will nearly double in their retail price. "If they were selling for 55 cents a pound, they will now sell for $1 a pound," he says.

For some farmers, the freeze has been a disaster. In the Homestead area, the freeze wiped out most of the crop. One unofficial estimate placed crop losses in the Homestead area at $12 million.

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However, in the Pompano area, due to the closeness of the Gulf Stream, the crop was not as badly damaged. At Capella Farms Inc., Carl Capella, the owner, grins as he watches bushels of extra large green tomatoes roll down his conveyor belt.

"When prices were low, we were just spinning our wheels, picking cheap," he says, "but now that we've got a good price we have a chance to make some headway."

To save his plants, Mr. Capella and his brother and daughter were up most of the night trying to keep their irrigation canals flowing. The moving water helped to keep the roots from freezing and kept the temperature slightly higher. Even so, he says, some plants on his 200 acres got "singed."

In the past, US consumers could count on fresh vegetables from Mexico. However, Capella notes that the Mexicans have had a lot of rain and their crops are late.Mexican- grown vegetables have been expensive as a result and have not been as competitive with US vegetables as they have been in the past.

Some of the vegetable crop survived the cold with insignificant damage. The lettuce crop only got sligthly "burned" on the outside leaves. Moreover, part of the crop had already been harvested.

So the freeze wasn't a complete disaster -- except for the green beans. Unfortunately, Mr. Levy notes, "The green beans are sensitive and break down quickly in the cold."

The citrus crops was not hurt as badly as the vegetable crop, although it, too, incurred losses. Preliminary estimates placed the damage at 20 to 25 percent of the current orange crop. However, because of a bumper crop and large supplies expected from Brazil, price movements were expected to be mitigated. Since most of the oranges are squeezed into juice, it will take at least two weeks to determine the extent of the juice loss.

In the meantime, Gov. Bob Graham (D) has lifted the truck weight restrictions on moving oranges to market so that the frozen citrus can be processed quickly.

Fortunately, temperatures remained low after the freeze so that spoilage was kept to a minimum. But the governor has placed a 10-day embargo on the shipment of oranges to the North to try to maintain the quality image of Florida oranges.

The grapefruit harvest was not as badly hurt, since grapefruit have thicker skins and can survice the cold better.

So, instead of ordering a tossed salad with your next restaurant meal, you might want to make it a fruit salad.

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