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Produce prices are beginning to fall

March should begin to seem more like typical Florida harvest time, just in time for the 1990 Florida Strawberry Festival and Hillsborough County Fair in Plant City. Strawberries that survived the Christmas freeze and fruit from plants that began producing after the freeze are starting to come on the market, thereby lowering prices.

Promoters say there should be plenty of strawberries for the festival, March 1-11, when strawberry fans can enjoy berries in shortcake, cobblers and pies and on elephant ears, and buy some to take home by the quart or the flat.

The picture is also a little brighter in supermarket produce sections, where prices on some items have dropped to normal levels. Prices on other foods, such as tomatoes and peppers, should begin to drop as more growing areas come back into production.

March also marks a time of transition in the catch of the fishing fleet, with the first blue crabs showing up as the season ends for spiny lobster.

Here's a look at the market for March.

MEAT, POULTRY AND EGGS: Beef and veal remain high, but pork prices are relatively low and lamb prices should hold steady.

Chicken prices will show small but steady increases through June, said Donald Ward, a federal market watcher in Winter Park. The rise reflects a reduced supply of chickens because the hard winter cutback on the number of eggs laid and because demand has increased slightly to meet new export deals with the Soviet Union and Romania.

Whole chickens, wings and most parts will remain the best buys, and skinned boneless breasts will be the most expensive.

Egg prices will remain high with large eggs edging up 5 to 8 cents during the month.

Supply of turkeys and ducks will be adequate through Easter.

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES: A great deal of produce continues to be imported from Mexico, Guatemala and Chile, but Florida crops are slowly beginning to reappear in local stores.

Strawberries are already rolling in from local farms, as are mustard, collard and turnip greens. Cabbages remain abundant and inexpensive; lettuce prices have come down.

Apples and pears will continue to be in good supply, while imported grapes, peaches and nectarines are also available at reasonable prices.

Tomatoes, peppers, squash and melons remain high. A few tomatoes and peppers from Homestead are available, but the bulk of the post-freeze crop will not be available until the end of the month.

March is, however, a good time to look for some unusual produce. Rhubarb and green anise should be available. Supplies of Brussels sprouts and Florida avocados will be diminishing.

SEAFOOD: If you like Florida lobster, next month's your last chance to enjoy; the season ends March 31.

March is also a good time for a number of other Florida favorites. Stone crab claws are in good supply and two hard-to-find fin fish, pompano and Spanish mackerel, often show up in March.

In addition, Florida fishery monitors say that boats on the East Coast are beginning to bring in scallops and blue crabs again.

Clams are reported in good supply; rock shrimp are becoming scarce.

Tuna, swordfish, sea trout, sea bass and grouper should also be available in March. Snapper will show up in more seafood cases, but look for vermilion and other varieties more often than red.

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