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November 17, 2000

Grocery Prices for the Holiday Season a Mixed Bag

Red sweet corn. Purple carrots. Purple mashed potatoes. Your holiday meals may take on a new look this year‹although the cost of a holiday banquet will be nearly the same as last year.

Exotic colors in vegetables for sale during the holiday season are becoming common, according to Brian Smith, a professor of plant and earth science at the University of Wisconsin‹River Falls College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, He noted that eggplants are now available in white, peppers can now be a chocolate color, and colored kernels that look like Indian corn is the newest look in sweet corn.

"There are lots of unique vegetables being grown now," Smith said. "You can never predict, but there is a good chance some will catch on." These new products are sometimes available at larger supermarkets such Byerlyıs and Lunds, at specialty stores, or at co-op grocery stores.

As for the traditional vegetables consumers are all familiar with, price, production and availability are still pretty much the same as last year, he said.

The one exception is cranberries, which have dropped dramatically in price, from $60 a barrel to $13 a barrel, due to overproduction. "But the lower prices are not being passed on to the consumer," Smith said. "We are still paying high prices for cranberries."

Prices for other vegetables are holding steady. Wisconsin is a major producer of vegetables, leading the nation in beets for processing, cabbage for kraut, and snap beans. The state ranks near the top in sweet corn for processing (third), green peas (third), carrots (third), potatoes (third), tart cherries (fifth), and strawberries (tenth), according to Smith, who quoted the Wisconsin 2000 Agricultural Statistics Annual Report.

Retail prices for the main courses such as turkey, beef and pork have risen slightly, while chicken prices have declined.

Chicken broiler prices have decreased 10 cents a pound, from $1.19 to $1.09, and chicken breast prices have declined from $2.08 to $2.05 per pound, according to Stanley Schraufnagel, professor of agricultural economics at UW-RF, who was quoting the September 2000 Wisconsin Farm Bureauıs Market Basket Report.

Turkey prices, on the other hand, have increased 5 cents per pound over last year to about $1.10 per pound, Schraufnagel.said. However, many grocers will continue to reduce this price as a loss-leader to attract holiday shoppers. The price for a pound of ground beef went up four cents to $1.64. The price trend for pork is mixed. This year, the retail price for a pound of ham has gone down four cents to $2.02, but the price of pork chops has risen 35 cents, to $3.18 this year.

Professor Steven Watters of the UW-RF animal and food science department said the increase in beef prices is due in part to a shortage of calves. There has been a shortage of feed over the past year or two, he said, which has caused ranchers to reduce their herds.

The other reason for higher prices is the increased costs of the meat handlers and distributors. "The people who kill, buy and cut the meat are having to pay more for wages and insurance," Watters said, "and that cost is passed on to the consumer."

He noted a trend that could also contribute to higher prices, saying, "People are going back to higher quality meat. For health reasons, they may eat smaller pieces, or not eat beef very often, but when they do, they want it to be juicy." He said cattle have to be on feed a little longer to produce juicy meat, and that costs more.

Watters said pork prices are stable year-round because pigs are grown indoors. "Breeders can always get feed from somewhere, and they donıt need pastures." As with beef, price increases are mostly due to the people in the middle.

Prices for dairy products have remained pretty stable since last year, according to Ranee May, UW-RF dairy plant manager. Wisconsin is still the No. 1 state in cheese production, and nears the top in milk and butter production. Wisconsin also has the second largest number of dairy cows, next to California.

Then, there is the ever-present Christmas tree to consider. Approximately 35 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year. According to Professor Mike Kaltenberg, in the plant and earth science department at UW-RF, about 3 million of those trees will be produced in Wisconsin this year. The state ranks sixth in production in the nation, he said.

Kaltenberg said prices this season are expected to be about the same as last year, when they ranged from $3.96 to $7.23 per foot. The most popular varieties of real trees in order are the balsam fir, Fraser fir and Scotch pine. The trend toward shorter needles, which began a few years ago, is continuing.

Other trends this season are the popularity of wreaths and garlands, and the ways in which Christmas trees are marketed, such as cut-your-own growers, e-commerce, catalog and mail order.

Flowers provide a festive touch for the holidays, but, like vegetables, they are taking on a new look.

"The new varieties of poinsettia are not even recognizable as poinsettias to many people," said Terry Ferriss, UW-RF professor of plant and earth science, referring to three new varieties, which are curled, ruffled and multi-colored. Ferriss said pricing this season will depend on where the plant is purchased. A plant in a 4-invh pot at a discount store will be $3.99-$5.99, and a 6-pot will be $6-$10.

An 8-pot with two gorgeous plants, probably available only at specialty shops, will cost $25-$35.

Identifying trends for the season, Ferriss said orchids and azaleas are popular flowering potted plants, and amaryllis bulbs have become a popular gift item. Cut flowers, especially roses and red or pink tulips, are also popular. Another appropriate flower is the star of Bethlehem, which has multiple white flowers on one stem.

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