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July 2007, Volume 13, Number 3

US Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables, planted on 13 million acres of land (three percent of US crop land), accounted for 29 percent of average crop cash receipts between 2002 and 2004 and 18 percent of US farm exports. The US has imported more fruits and vegetables than it exported since 1998. In 2005, the value of fruit and vegetable exports was $11 billion, and the value of imports $14 billion.

Production was about 100 million tons in 2005, including 24 million tons of fresh market vegetables; 16 million tons of processing vegetables; 21 million tons of potatoes; 11 million tons of citrus; 17 million tons of noncitrus (mostly processed); and 1.5 million tons of tree nuts. By value of sales, grapes, oranges, and apples are the most valuable fruits, and potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes the most valuable vegetables.

Americans consume an average 445 pounds of vegetables and 282 pounds of fruit and tree nuts a year. The vegetables include 135 pounds of potatoes; 90 pounds of tomatoes; 27 pounds of sweet corn; and 22 pounds each of lettuce and onions. The fruits include 81 pounds of oranges; 47 pounds of apples; 30 pounds of wine grapes (enough for 12 bottles of wine); 26 pounds of bananas; and 19 pounds of other grapes.

Transportation of fresh produce is becoming more costly. In October 2005, when head lettuce was worth an average $5.05 per 50-pound carton in Salinas, the cost of transporting a carton to New York was about $6.50.

About half of fresh fruits and vegetables are sold in supermarkets. Supermarket sales are being concentrated in fewer chains: the largest 20 food retailers accounted for 60 percent of grocery sales in 2001.

A sixth of the typical households food-at-home expenditures in 2004 were for fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, an average $560. Many commodities have additional convenience features, such as bagged salads, microwave ready corn and broccoli florets. However, the farm value of retail fruit and vegetable prices is below 20 percent- an average 19 percent for fresh fruit and vegetables, and 16 percent for processed fruit and vegetables.

The 2002 COA included production data on 100 fruits and vegetables grown on about 114,000 orchard, 54,000 vegetable and 18,000 berry operations (these commodities accounted for more than 50 percent of the operation's sales). Labor was the single largest variable cost on these farms in 2003, averaging 42 percent of the $153,000 average expenses per farm. However, only a sixth of these farms had sales of $250,000 a year or more.

Most grapes, lettuce and celery are packed in the field, while onions, oranges, apples and tomatoes are typically packed in sheds.

Major issues facing the fruit and vegetable industry are food safety, labor costs and farm policy (interactions with commodities that receive federal price support). Sicknesses and deaths linked to fresh produce have led to more testing and traceability. More farmers are complaining of fewer workers, which can make timely completion of farm tasks difficult. Farmers producing crops such as corn and wheat and receiving government payments are not allowed to plant fruits and vegetables on their "flex acres," a restriction that, if dropped, may increase supply.

California had 2.9 million acres of orchards in 2002; 36,000 acres of berries; 1.2 million acres of vegetables and melons; and 162,000 acres of potatoes and pulses. Florida had 895,000; 8,400; 220,000; and 45,000 acres respectively, while Washington had 311,000; 17,000; 215,000; and 374,000 acres respectively. The COA counts jobs on farms, and in 2002 California accounted for 26 percent of the jobs in vegetables and melons and 47 percent of the jobs in fruits and nuts.

China is the world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables, and coastal Shandong province, the so-called California of China, is emerging as a major exporter. Farmers, many of whom have seven years of schooling and less than an acre of land, are increasingly planting strawberries, oranges, and garlic. Throughout China, vegetable acreage doubled between 1990 and 2000 to 20 million acres, and fruit acreage almost doubled to 25 million acres.

Lucier, Gary, Susan Pollack, Mir Ali, and Agnes Perez. 2006. Fruit and Vegetable Backgrounder. Outlook Report No. (VGS-31301). April.