Over the past several years, foreign sales have slowly increased in importance within U.S. vegetable and pulse markets. Exports as a share of total U.S. vegetable supplies averaged 9 percent during 2000-08—up from 7 percent during 1990-98. After a period of stagnation earlier this decade, export share of supply began to creep higher, partly because of the weaker U.S. dollar. The top vegetables in terms of export value are potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and sweet corn. The share of supply exported varies substantially among commodities, with a few of the most export-dependent vegetables and pulses during 2000-08 being the following:
- Onions for dehydration, 57 percent of supply;
- Dry edible peas and lentils, 48 percent;
- Fresh-market cauliflower, 28 percent;
- Fresh-market broccoli, 17 percent;
- Sweet corn for canning, 17 percent.
Canada, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are the top five destinations for U.S. vegetable and pulse exports. Export demand has been growing, particularly from Canada, the largest foreign buyer of U.S. vegetables and pulses. Increased overseas promotion for some U.S. vegetables through efforts such as the Market Access Program may have helped boost foreign sales.
Exports of fresh-market vegetables account for about 7 percent of available supplies. In value terms, fresh-market vegetables (excluding potatoes) claimed the largest share of total vegetable exports, averaging about $1.7 billion annually over the past 5 years. Fresh exports have a discernible seasonal pattern, with volume peaking during May-July and reaching lows during September and February. Besides the weather, demand from Canada—the leading foreign market for U.S. exports of fresh vegetables—influences this pattern. Canada's vegetable imports are lowest during their summer growing season and peak in the spring when supplies of storage-type vegetables are exhausted and before their own growing season has begun.
Among fresh vegetables, lettuce (all types) is the largest fresh export ($431 million in 2008), but lettuce also enjoys relatively strong domestic demand. The same is true for tomatoes, the second-largest fresh export ($208 million in 2008). Exports account for 9 percent of domestic supply of all lettuce and 6 percent of fresh tomatoes. This percentage has slowly drifted lower over the past three decades, as growth in domestic consumption has exceeded that of export volume.
Export demand for U.S. frozen vegetables (including potatoes) has increased during the past decade. Exports accounted for 11 percent of U.S. frozen vegetable supplies during 2000-08, compared with 8 percent during 1990-98. In 2008, U.S. frozen vegetable exports (including potatoes) totaled 4.5 billion pounds (fresh-weight basis), with a value of $964 million. Potato products (primarily french fries) account for nearly three-fourths of frozen vegetable export volume. Until stabilizing in the early 2000s, frozen potato exports had been rising strongly for many years, fueled by the expansion of U.S. fast-food establishments overseas, particularly in Asian countries. Strong demand and more favorable exchange rates have allowed frozen exports to resume their upward march toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Excluding potatoes, frozen vegetable exports (fresh-weight basis) averaged nearly 900 million pounds annually during 2000-08, up 13 percent from 1990-98.
Japan is the largest export market for U.S. frozen vegetables, accounting for 39 percent of the annual value during 2000-08. Other important markets include Canada (15 percent), China/Hong Kong (11 percent), Mexico (10 percent), and South Korea (4 percent). After bottoming out in 2003, U.S. frozen vegetable exports to Japan have trended upward as a result of a combination of economic recovery in Japan, the weakening U.S. dollar, and less competition from other exporting nations. The value of U.S. frozen vegetable exports to Japan is one-third greater than it was during 1990-97, despite loss of market share to countries such as Canada, China, Taiwan, and New Zealand. French-fried potatoes and sweet corn account for the majority of the U.S. frozen vegetables exported to Japan.
During 2000-08, exports of canned vegetables comprised about 8 percent of available supplies, up from 6 percent during 1990-98. This increased export share partly reflects the efforts of vegetable canners to expand markets overseas to compensate for stagnant or declining domestic demand. U.S. exports of all canned vegetables averaged $0.6 billion annually during 2000-08. Tomato sauce, sweet corn, and tomato paste are the top three canned vegetable exports, accounting for about two-thirds of annual canned export value.
Canada is the leading export market for U.S. canned vegetables, accounting for 43 percent of the value of U.S. canned vegetable exports during 2000-08, up from 35 percent during 1990-98. Japan is the second-largest U.S. market, with 12 percent of canned export value, down from 17 percent a decade earlier. Mexico (9 percent), South Korea (5 percent), and Taiwan (3 percent) round out the top five foreign markets.
In terms of value, the U.S. received 45 percent of all vegetable, and pulse (dry bean, dry pea, and lentil) imports from Mexico during 2000-08, with the majority being fresh-market vegetables and frozen products. Canada is the second-leading foreign supplier, with 24 percent of the U.S. import market. With obvious transportation advantages, Mexico and Canada have historically been the top two suppliers. Rounding out the top five import sources during the first 9 years of the 2000s are China (5 percent), Peru (4 percent), and Spain (2 percent). China supplies products such as mushrooms, dried vegetables (excluding mushrooms, garlic, and pulses), water chestnuts, garlic, and bamboo shoots. Imports from Spain have declined markedly in the past few years, with Spain losing market share to Peru in key prepared products, especially artichokes.
In terms of value, fresh vegetables account for approximately 55 percent of annual vegetable imports. Fresh vegetable imports have a definite seasonal pattern, with almost two-thirds of import volume arriving between December and May when U.S. production is low. The majority of these imports are tender warm-season vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and snap beans. Cool-season crops like leafy green vegetables and carrots grow abundantly and cheaply in California, Arizona, and Texas during the winter months. As a result, imports of these items are very low compared with warm-season crops.
During 2000-08, imports accounted for 15 percent of total U.S. vegetable and melon consumption, up from 8 percent during 1990-08. With the exception of dry peas and lentils, the average import share of consumption increased over the past decade for all major categories (e.g. fresh, freezing, canning, and dry beans). Import share was four times greater for processed potatoes (largely frozen), more than double for dehydrated onions and dry beans, and 65 percent greater for fresh-market vegetables. Fresh market vegetable imports have been under scrutiny ever since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. During the first year of NAFTA, the import share of consumption for fresh vegetables and melons remained steady at about 10 percent. However, following the devaluation of the Mexican peso in December 1994, U.S. imports of Mexican vegetables rose sharply. Mexican growers increased shipments to the United States partly because of poor domestic demand and more attractive U.S. prices. Largely as a result of increased volume from Mexico, fresh vegetable import share rose to 12.5 percent during 1995 and 14 percent in 1996 and 1997. After slowing briefly earlier this decade, the import share of consumption reached an estimated 20 percent in 2008.
In terms of processing products, imports of most canned vegetables are relatively low because of highly mechanized and relatively low-cost domestic industries. Although low, the share of consumption coming from imported products increased in the 2000s. Imports of canned vegetables as a percentage of domestic disappearance were estimated to average nearly 13 percent during 2000-08, up from 7 percent during 1990-98. Import share increased for most canned vegetables, including chile peppers, asparagus, and sweet corn. With processors moving factories to countries such as Peru to take advantage of lower costs, 79 percent of the canned asparagus consumed came from imports in 2008, up from just 7 percent in 2000. The United States imports significant quantities of canned items that are not produced domestically, such as bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. Estimates suggest that 15-20 percent of canned vegetable imports are noncompetitive, meaning there is little or no domestic production of the crop.
Tomato products are the leading canned vegetable, and import volume of items such as tomato paste and canned whole/pieces is generally less today than a decade ago because of increasing efficiency (new plants, lower costs) in the domestic industry. One exception is imports of various tomato sauces that rose sharply in the 2000s in response to interest in various ethnic cuisines. Imports of tomato products as a share of domestic disappearance averaged 6 percent during 2000-08, up from 4 percent during 1990-98, and little changed from the import share experienced during 1980-88.
Frozen vegetable imports (including potatoes) continue to trend higher, with 2000-08 volume averaging nearly three times that of the 1990-98 level. Imports of frozen vegetables (excluding potatoes) accounted for about 27 percent of consumption in 2000-08, up from 16 percent during 1990-98. Excluding potatoes, broccoli accounts for one-third of the frozen vegetables imported. Most frozen broccoli comes from Mexico (with lesser amounts from Guatemala and Ecuador). Frozen broccoli has the highest degree of import penetration among all vegetables that also have commercial domestic output, with about 95 percent of domestic disappearance coming from imports in 2008. Cutting broccoli into florets is a labor-intensive task. To cut costs, the industry basically moved from California to Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The frozen asparagus and cauliflower markets also feature high degrees of import incursion.