Weis-Buy Farms Inc. is part of the article 'Freezes Felt In Lee, Collier County Produce Aisles', written by Laura Ruane, published by News-Press, January 08, 2011.

Some produce shoppers are feeling the price pinch after December’s three freezes battered Southwest Florida crops.

“Fruit and vegetables are through the roof,” said April Hyndman, 47, Fort Myers mother of two and a discount shopper.

The picture after the third freeze, Dec. 26-68, actually is mixed: Some prices are up, others down.

Experts say scarcity and prices aren’t as bad as last winter, when — after January’s killer freezes some restaurants put tomatoes in salads and sandwiches only upon buyers’ request.

They credit several factors, including the salvaging of some Florida crop, replanting in the Sunshine State and an influx of produce from Mexico.

“Will we see $6-a -pound retail for tomatoes? No, but you might see them as high as $3.49 a pound,” said Chuck Weisinger, a Fort Myers-based fruit broker and president of Weis-Buy Farms Inc.

At the Oasis restaurant in downtown Fort Myers , however, kitchen manager Kyle Fortuna said he’s had no problems getting produce, noting: “We’re getting our tomatoes right now at a fairly good price.”

Fritz Roka is the Immokalee-based agriculture economist for the University of Florida ’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. “With so much produce coming in from Mexico , it’s not necessarily true that prices will go up for every commodity,” Roka said. Broker Weisinger said from about now through early April as much as 90 percent of cucumbers, peppers, squash and beans will come from Mexico. “That’s normal,” he said.

Shannon Patten, spokeswoman for Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc., wouldn’t discuss specific produce prices — past present or future. The freezes and any resulting price changes are “an industry issue, not a Publix issue,” Patten said. The Publix at First Street Village in downtown Fort Myers on Thursday listed green bell peppers at $2.49 a pound; zucchini (Mexico) at $2.49 a pound; and green beans at $2.99 a pound. Cucumbers from Mexico were 99 cents each. Strawberries were $2.99 a pound.

Before the first freeze on Dec. 6, “we were selling cucumbers two for a dollar,” said Bill Reners, Southwest Florida operations chief for the area’s Save-A-Lot discount food stores. That shot up to one cucumber for 99 cents shortly after the Dec. 26-28 freeze, “with ... everybody else charging over a dollar,” Reners said.

When a main vegetable supplier in Wauchula lost most crops to the freezes, “we had to go more south — to the Miami-Homestead area, to Immokalee — and to Mexico ,” Reners said.

The most-recent weekly federal survey available Friday for advertised prices of produce at major retail supermarket outlets showed a mixture of ups and downs: In Southeastern U.S. stores, plum (Roma) tomatoes fetched an average price of 98 cents a pound as of Dec. 30. That’s down from $1.26 a pound Dec. 3. Green bell peppers, however, shot up from $1.49 to $1.64 a pound on average, between Dec. 3-30.

Earlier this week, Reners passed on buying strawberries from Plant City , where the December chill slowed growth, but didn’t devastate the crop. The prices were just too high to pass along, Reners said: “People won’t buy them when they’re at $3.39-$3.99 a pint,” Reners said, noting: “They might at Publix, but our shopper won’t.”

Hyndman hits the fruit stands for produce in season, swaps extras with friends, and will buy from Publix — “whatever they’ve got on sale.”

On Friday, Hyndman packed her daughter a school lunch featuring a chicken sandwich garnished with store-bought salsa. She tells her son and daughter: “Have you seen the price of tomatoes?”

Weis-Buy Farms Inc. is part of the article 'Freezes Felt In Lee, Collier County Produce Aisles', written by Laura Ruane, originally published by News-Press, January 08, 2011.