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Florida tomato grower-shippers focus on the future

by C. Baxter Carter | September 21, 2009
NAPLES, FL -- Even the worst season in a decade was not enough to keep attendees at the 34th annual Florida Joint Tomato Conference from focusing on the future.

"Dreadful," committee Chairman Bob Spencer said in summarizing the 2008- 09 season in the Florida Tomato Committee's annual report, which was released at the conference, held Sept. 8-14 at the Ritz-Carlton-Naples, here. "It is doubtful the industry could survive another season like this one."

Although the Florida tomato industry sold more product this season (June 2008 to June 2009) than last and reversed a multi-year production acreage slump, revenues tumbled to $382,365,425, compared to $619,411,879 the previous season, and even worse than the disastrous 2006-07 season total of $403,884,734.

Average weekly prices ranged from a high of $19.01 per 25-pound box to a low of $3.89; in 2007-08, that range was $21.83-$7.50. The overall average price for the season was $8.13, down sharply from last season's $13.71, but up from the $7.69 in the 2006-07 season. Prices were below $5 per box for five weeks this season. There were just 11 weeks where prices topped $10, compared to 28 weeks the previous season.

Florida shipped 47,054,853 boxes of tomatoes this year, up from 45,177,457 last year. High point for production in the last five years came in 2004-05, at 53,025,915 boxes. That dipped to just below 48 million in 2005-06 and jumped to 52,500,000 in 2006-07.

In 2004-05, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that 42,000 Florida acres were devoted to tomato growing. That number declined steadily to a low of 31,500 in 2007-08, but estimates from the National Agricultural Statistic Service suggest tomato acreage rose last year to 33,600.

The woeful 2008-09 season is attributable to a toxic cocktail of circumstances: poor starting position, increased production costs, high pricing relative to a weak economy, stiff foreign competition and, especially, a 2008 Salmonella outbreak that mistakenly pointed to Florida tomatoes as its source. Although the real culprit was later found to be peppers from Mexico, consumers were spooked.

Grower-shippers were saddled with new, pending and ever-changing federal regulations and commodity-specific guidelines that many feel unfairly target the industry. But the industry responded to the challenge, and food safety was the main topic of this year's conference.

Shannon Shepp, director of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services' Division of Fruit & Vegetable Inspection, told Florida grower-shippers during a Sept. 8 workshop, "We are encouraged by the level of compliance we are seeing in the field. We have had an enthusiastic reception from buyers and the rest of the food chain. It's a wonderful feeling knowing Florida suppliers are on the cutting edge preserving their market share and doing the right thing in terms of food safety."

In addressing attendees of the conference Sept. 10, the committee's top Washington lobbyist, John Himmelberg, said, "I'm reminded of Charles Dickens, [except that] it's been the worst of times, period. It's tough times all around. I'm hopeful that makes us all better people all around, getting through that."

Mr. Himmelberg pointed to some recent legislative successes, including state department intervention that stopped some unfair practices among foreign grower-shippers. But he cautioned that "the government can take the positive out of a positive situation."

For example, a deal long in the making to sell Florida tomatoes to the USDA school lunch program was finally approved -- on June 9 -- as both the school year and the Florida tomato season came to a close.

"Good intentions, awful timing," Mr. Himmelberg told the crowd.

"Food safety is the number one issue for this industry," he continued, explaining that tightening FDA standards will pinch Florida farmers even more in coming months. "The good news is you all had the choice to do something as an industry, or do nothing, and you chose something."

Mr. Himmelberg said that new Food & Drug Administration guidelines on the way comprise 107 pages, with 70-plus additional pages of commodity- specific guidelines for tomatoes.

"There will be regulation of the tomato industry," he said. "The good news is that you all picked up on this early. [The Florida tomato industry has] been working with the FDA since Day One, all of which was considered favorably. Your representation has been working with people and staying on top, which will result in easier compliance. This could have had quite an impact on each and every one of you; hopefully it won't be much of a disruption."

Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the committee, followed Mr. Himmelberg, telling growers-shippers, "I don't have to explain to anyone in this room how hard the last 16 months have been. The economy collapsed our marketplace even further. The consumer is a completely different animal than a year ago."

Ms. Winters said that consumers "worried about keeping jobs and feeding their families" are making the market "a very complicated place right now."

Ms. Winters announced a just-approved USDA block grant of $538,000 for market research that will include a merchandising team, promotions, in- store testing and consumer research. "It's a pretty intensive program kicking off just in time for this season," she said. "We will know our consumer better." More than 450 people attended this year's conference, hosted by the FTC and the Florida Tomato Exchange, up from about 350 last year.