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January freeze to have lingering effects on some items from Mexico

Tight supplies on yellow squash, green beans, sweet corn and some other commodities from northern Mexico were pushing market prices to unusually high levels in late January and early February due to the lingering effects of a mid-January freeze in southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa, Mexico.

While most of the damage from the freeze, which took place Jan. 11-16, affected fields in Hermosillo, Caborca and Obregon that were already near the end of their season, other fields in areas such as Guaymas in southern Sonora and Los Mochis and Guasave in northern Sinaloa were just coming into production, and extensive losses have caused market prices to spike.

Some improvement may be seen by mid-March, but industry sources indicate it will probably be March 1 before production returns to normal.

Francisco Obregon, who does sales and new business development for IPR Fresh in Nogales, AZ, told The Produce News Feb. 1 that although the squash harvest in Caborca, Hermosillo and Obregon was almost over when the frost hit, "Guaymas was staring a new phase" and northern Sinaloa was just getting into production. "Two weeks later, the assessment of growers, insurance companies and government agencies were that while losses were extensive, some of the squash could be salvaged. So most of the squash that we see today are coming from those areas — very little from Sonora, with the exception of Guaymas."

New production should start in Hermosillo by the end of March or early April, "but probably we are going to wait until then before we see big volumes of squash," Mr. Obregon said. "Meanwhile, production is going to be very limited, probably for another 30 days."

Italian squash was affected, as was yellow squash, he said, but because the acreage of Italian squash planted is greater, the effects on supplies and prices are less noticeable.

"Right now, we see prices" on yellow squash ranging from $26.95 to $30.95, "but quality varies a lot," he said. "There is a lot of number twos, very few number ones."

Green beans are "very susceptible to cold," Mr. Obregon said. "The Sonora beans were wiped out. The only beans we see are basically the beans from northern Sinaloa," which is where most of them are grown. "There was some damage, so we have to be very careful with quality."

Market prices were high, and because beans are "challenging to find ... the markets, I think, will stay where they are at right now" for a while, he said.

Sweet corn prices were at $23 to $24, and "they've been like that for the last two weeks," Mr. Obregon added. Growers further south that have sweet corn should have "very good quality," but in the areas affected by the freeze, what corn is salvaged will have quality issues due to imperfect pollination.

Rick Sbragia, who handles sales and quality control at JMB Distributing Inc. in Nogales, said that the company, which specializes in green beans, lost 80 hectares [200 acres] of beans in Guasave from the freeze.

"We're not receiving anything right now," he said Feb. 1. Interestingly, "the field we were in at the time of the freeze didn't get hit, but the lot we were going to be starting a week later got hit," and it was just the other side of the freeway.

The company has another 200 hectares [500 acres] of green beans that should be starting about mid-February, and those "should be fine," he said.

Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce in Nogales, which brokers produce out of Mexico, said Feb. 1 that just about everything in Sonora and from Los Mochis north in Sinaloa was affected by the freeze. Squash prices were generally in the $26 to $28 range, but that should be alleviated as some Culiacan fields come into production about mid-February.

Effects of bloom drop on various crops will have some lingering effects on supplies for another two to three weeks, he said. Even Bell peppers and cucumbers "tightened up" following the freeze. But tomatoes, which are grown mostly in protective structures and mostly farther to the south, were "coming on strong."

Some growers in the affected areas lost 50-60 percent of their zucchini and yellow squash production, according to Jorge Quintero Sr., marketing director for Grower Alliance LLC in Nogales. Gray squash was also affected.

"Some new fields that were expected to harvest the second week of February got wiped out," Mr. Quintero said, adding that new fields will be coming into production during the first and second week of March.

Grower Alliance also had beans that were affected, according to Jorge Quintero Jr., a managing partner.

"We lost about 65 hectares [160 acres] of green beans in Guasave" and in Angostura, which is to the southwest of Guasave, he told The Produce News Feb. 1. "That is an effect that just went into play a couple of days ago, as far as the beans go, because not all of them got hurt."

He expected beans to continue to be short out of Mexico for another month, but market prices will be influenced by whether Florida and Texas continue to have good production.

Unless Florida has weather problems, "I don't expect it to go above $30 or $32," he said.