Somewhat like the economy with its fits and starts related to recovery, there appears to be quite a mix of ample to tight supplies, rising, steady and falling prices for food ingredients this year. In general, supplies of major grains and oilseeds are expected to be ample, with moderate prices reflective of supply, but several other products, including oats, cocoa, sugar, coffee and some nuts and spices, will be in tight supply with strong prices expected. There are exceptions, and weather remains a great unknown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its most recent World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates projected record U.S. corn and rice production this year, along with the second largest soybean crop on record and moderately lower wheat outturn. Globally, rice production was forecast to be record high in 2010-11 and wheat production the third highest ever (with wheat ending stocks the largest since 2001-02). Both the United States and Brazil are coming off years of record high soybean production.

Speakers at the recent Sosland Publishing Co.’s annual Purchasing Seminar iterated forecasts for ample domestic and global production and supplies of corn, soybeans and wheat in 2010 (for the 2010-11 marketing year). They also shared concerns about pricing and supply issues in other ingredients.

Weather, both domestic and global, will of course play a key role in the final production numbers and price levels. The greatest unknown probably is the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, forecast to be one of the most active on record, with its potential impact on Florida citrus crops and Gulf sugar cane refining, as well as sugar, coffee and some tropical fruits from Caribbean region nations.

Much attention also will be on the U.S. Midwest, with some in the market recently “talking up” the possibility of hot, dry weather cutting production of corn and soybeans this summer, while others have discounted those ideas.

Meteorologist Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., a private agricultural weather company based in Overland Park, Kas., told Purchasing Seminar participants it will get hotter and drier this summer, but early moisture conditions should be sufficient to carry crops through the season. Especially in the case of corn, he noted, with early planting followed by early pollination, there was “hardly a chance” that dryness would be a problem. Slightly more effect may be seen on the later-developing soybean crop, he said, with July a transitional month, but he added there would not be sustained high temperatures or drought in the United States.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be problem areas, such as the current situation in Canada where excessive moisture has caused significant planting delays that are expected to result in as much as 12 million unplanted acres, mainly in Saskatchewan, the top-producing agricultural province. The result likely will be much lowerthan-expected production of oats, canola, durum and other spring wheat. While supplies of other oils should adequately make up for reduced canola oil production, and wheat stocks are at least adequate, oats may be another matter as Canada is the major source of food grade milling oats for the United States. Oats futures prices shot up about 45% the past two weeks, with cash oats up more than $1 a bu as farmers tightly hold 2009 supplies in anticipation of still higher prices due to reduced 2010 production. Prices for food grade oat flakes jumped more than 3c a lb last week, to the highest level since October 2008, and little relief is expected any time soon.

The situation begins to vary even more for other ingredient categories, such as soft commodities (coffee, cocoa, sugar), nuts and spices.

Sugar seems to be following a course similar to that of soybeans — tight domestic supplies but easing and growing global supply. Relief should come for both by October, when U.S. new crop soybean and beet sugar supplies become available. Bulk refined sugar currently is selling around 49c a lb, about 35% above year-ago levels, with pricing into 2011 around 40c, still historically high. But the global factors that drove sugar prices to near historic levels a few months back have changed, with world outturn in 2010-11 expected to increase 8% after two down years, according to the U.S.D.A.

The situation may be even more acute for “lesser” ingredients — lesser only in the sense most are bought in smaller volume than wheat flour or sugar, for example.

Probably the most visible has been cocoa, of which cocoa bean futures prices reached near 30-year highs a few months ago. Cash cocoa powder still is trading more than double year-ago values, with spot supplies unavailable and new orders requiring up to three months to ship in some cases. Kip Walk, director of cocoa for Blommer Chocolate Co., Chicago, told Sosland Purchasing Seminar attendees he had no words of relief for cocoa buyers for the next several months.

Even though the International Cocoa Organization has forecast a surplus in cocoa bean supply over demand for 2010-11, trade sources have encouraged users to cover at least part of their 2011 cocoa powder needs due to the imbalance of heavy cocoa butter and tight powder supplies. Prices for next year are only slightly below current levels.

Coffee, although not an “ingredient” typically covered by Food Business News, also has seen tight supplies due to lower production in many key growing regions, including top-producing Brazil. Futures prices in New York were near two-year highs last week. As with sugar, Brazil’s production of coffee is expected to jump significantly in 2010-11, but the low quality of the crop is expected to limit near-term supply gains and price declines, especially in higher-value varieties.

For nuts, there also is some parallel to soybeans, referred to as the “China syndrome” at the Sosland Purchasing Seminar by Bobby Tankersly, senior vice-president of industrial sales for John B. Sanfilippo & Sons Inc., Elk Grove, Ill. He noted increased exports of pecans, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts to China in 2009, with demand continuing into 2010 in most cases, as a factor tightening supplies and driving prices higher in the United States. He noted that China bought 63% of the Oregon hazelnut crop last year. Although the United States produces only 4% of the world hazelnut supply, almost all of it comes from Oregon. China also is the major buyer of U.S. soybeans.

Spices appear to have a myriad of problems, said Stanley Gorski, president of Van de Vries Spice Corp., East Brunswick, N.J., also speaking at the Sosland Purchasing Seminar. Food safety issues with black pepper and earthquake damage to some cinnamon production and shipping areas caused supply problems for those spices, but prices appear to be rising for most major spices, in part as consumption continues to grow.

“Buyers should watch markets closely and book regularly,” Mr. Gorski suggested to spice buyers — good advice, it would seem, for many ingredients this year.