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Where Do Our Fruits and Vegetables Come From?

Diet, Food Production, Food Trade, Health

Where Do Our Fruits and Vegetables Come From?

The Dirt:

Ever wonder where your fruits and vegetables come from? How are “seasonal” fresh fruits and vegetables readily available 365 days a year? We wanted to know more about how our grocery store shelves remain stocked all year round. Here is what we found out.

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Knowing where your food comes from is a big topic these days – especially for produce. Fruit and vegetable production occurs throughout the U.S., but mostly in concentrated areas of the country.

A Clear Winner in U.S. Produce Production

According to the USDA’s 2012 agricultural census data, California produces the nation’s largest assortment and volume of fruits and vegetables on nearly 4.4 million acres out of a total landmass of 100 million acres. They lead production in broccoli, artichokes, kiwis, plums, celery, garlic, cauliflower, spinach, carrots, lettuce, raspberries, and strawberries.

One-third of California’s farmland is used to grow vegetables. Other major vegetable producing-states are (in order) Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, Florida, and Minnesota with between 370,000 and 230,000 acres.

In fruit production, California once again leads U.S. production with over 3.1 million acres in orchards and nearly 53,000 acres in berries.

Only 3 other states have more than 200,000 acres in orchards – Florida with 579,068, Washington with 315,456, and Texas with 204,305. Other leaders in berry production are Maine, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Wisconsin – all with between 22,000 to 40,000 acres.

In most states, fruit and vegetables are in season for a short period of time – usually measured in weeks of the year. In states such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California with mild climates and large fertile, arable land mass, some produce may be grown for longer time periods than in the more temperate U.S. zones. But even in these states, seasonality still limits production for most commodities requiring import of products from the southern hemisphere.

So…how are we eating fresh berries during a snowy winter?

As demand for products such as fresh berries grows, suppliers have found ways to transport products from in-season growing areas in the southern hemisphere to consumers residing in the northern hemisphere during the offseason. The fresh blueberries you enjoy on your yogurt in winter are imported from South America.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. was a net exporter of fruits and vegetables, but today our nation is a net importer. In looking at USDA data, the volume of U.S. fruit and vegetable imports increased 35 and 50%, respectively, from 1999 to 2014 (Figure 1). With cultivation moving from the northern hemisphere to prime summer growing season in the southern hemisphere, U.S. consumers experience the restrictions of seasonality less than ever before – thanks to those imports from Mexico and South and Central America.

Imports from Mexico and South and Central America enable U.S. consumers to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter months

Figure 1. The volume of U.S. fruit and vegetable imports increased 35 and 50%, respectively, from 1999 to 2014

This next chart (figure 2) illustrates imported produce shipments from 1998 to 2012.

  • During the 15 year span (1998-2012), spring produce shipments more than tripled and fall shipments increased 4.5-fold.
  • Over 90% of imported fruits and vegetables come from Mexico, Central America, and South America.
  • In 1998, 100% of iceberg lettuce was grown domestically, but by 2012, domestic production shrank 5%.

To further explore the origin of produce imported to the U.S., check out the 5,000-mile salad, an interactive Scientific American publication depicting the USDA’s data on where our fruits and vegetables come from.

Figure 2. Fruits and vegetables shipped to U.S. distribution centers in April and September 1998, 2005, 2012. Source: Scientific American

How has the market for fresh/processed/frozen fruits and vegetables changed?

Produce can be categorized in many different ways, but two broad categories are fresh market and processed. Most farmers grow particular produce varieties specifically for either processed or fresh market. Sometimes, fresh market products may be diverted to processing when they do not meet buyer specifications or fresh market USDA grade standards or when an unplanned situation occurs such as a hail storm that causes physical crop damage rendering the crop unfit for the fresh market. But by and large, growers plant their crops knowing where the harvested crop is going – to either fresh market or processing buyers.

According to the USDA, about half of all US-produced vegetables are processed. Processed vegetables can be further broken down into subcategories of canned and frozen. Figure 3 illustrates how since the mid-1980s production of fresh market vegetables has soared surpassing canning in 1981.

Although fresh market production has plateaued in the past decade, vegetables produced for canning and freezing have overall remained stagnant since 1970. With no sign of losing its number one spot, California led the fresh market and processed vegetable production in 2015 followed by Arizona, Georgia, New York, and Washington for fresh market and Wisconsin, Washington, Minnesota, and Michigan for processed vegetables.

Figure 3. How U.S. vegetables are used, 1970-2014 (USDA, ERS)

Most growers plant their crops knowing where the harvested crop is going – to either fresh market or processing buyers.

Fruit availability has also reflected the changes in consumer preference and diets since 1970. Figure 4 shows U.S. Fruit availability, 1970-2012 (in pounds per capita, 3-year averages).

Figure 4. U.S. Fruit availability, 1970-2012 (in pounds per capita, 3-year averages). Source: USDA ERS

From 2010-2012 fresh fruit accounted for 52% of Americans’ per capita consumption, up from 42% in 1970-1972; while processed fruit (canned, juice, frozen, and dried) fell steadily from a peak of 171.3 lbs. per person in 1977 to 113.7 lbs. per person in 2012.

Within the processed category, canned and juice consumption has declined the most from 1970 to 2012. Growth in the frozen fruit category was attributed primarily to the popularity of frozen berries.

The Bottom Line:

Our fruits and vegetables come from all over the United States, but California leads production by a huge margin. When the season ends in the United States, production shifts to Mexico, Central and South American countries allowing Americans to enjoy many fresh produce items year-round.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line