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After a winter of doing without, U.S. consumers now have ample supplies of fresh Florida tomatoes available.

Brutal winter weather wiped out as much as 85 percent of the Florida tomato crop. Some plants were salvaged, and others were reset. The result is a later- than-usual crop of very good tomatoes at promotable volumes.

With the shortage of Florida tomatoes, buyers and brokers sourced most of their product from Nogales and Mexico from mid-January through mid-May. Some Florida tomato growers began picking as late as May 12 - more than two weeks behind the usual deal.

"Today is my first day picking," Jeff May, director of sales for Tomatoes of Ruskin in Ruskin, FL, told The Produce News May 12. "We're just getting started - we've got our fingers crossed, and we'll see what happens. We've got to hope we have good weather for the next six weeks. We have to hope it doesn't rain so we can get them all in."

Barry Stein of Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC in Palmetto, FL, said, "Spring has started here, and we are picking up local volume now. I wouldn't say they're all going to come in at one time. This is a different season than in the past due to the cold weather. It's looking very, very nice. The locals look good, and the tomatoes from Immokalee [FL] also look very good."

Taylor & Fulton's Immokalee farms started harvesting earlier in the month and will wrap up at the end of May. Taylor & Fulton's Palmetto harvest has begun with a smattering of product and was ramping up to full bore in mid- May.

"There is promotable starting now," Mr. Stein said. "We're looking forward to a good spring going into a good summer deal with good quality, good product and good volume."

Taylor & Fulton was one of the few growers able to salvage any of the earlier Immokalee deal. "In Immokalee, the yields were phenomenally poor as a result of the weather we had," said Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Committee in Maitland, FL. "That crop had a lot of age on it."

The Palmetto-Ruskin crop comes mostly from new plants that were set in February after the worst of winter had passed. The late start pushed production back, but excellent growing conditions over the last few weeks have resulted in a premium crop.

"We're certainly going to have a good crop and lots of opportunity to put them in the marketplace, that's for sure," Mr. Brown said. "The Palmetto-Ruskin area crop has had a more normal production cycle even though it was slightly delayed. Those crops are maturing close to on-schedule in a more normal fashion, and we anticipate normal volume and very high-quality product."

Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto told The Produce News May 12, "We're finally starting to come into the local tomatoes. It's not great volume, but it's better than it was. In another two to three weeks, we'll start to get better volume. We're definitely going to be able to cover our customers with a pretty good product. It's springtime, and we've waited a long time -- now we can make them remember how good things taste with these good old sandland tomatoes."

"There will be plenty of Florida tomatoes coming out of here Memorial Day week," said Darren Micelle, chief marketing officer of Six Ls Packing Co. "Starting the 24th of May all the way through the 10th of June, the Florida Ruskin crop will be in its prime, and it's the best crop of Florida tomatoes we've seen in years. We want to get the word out that Florida tomatoes are back."

For the last month, "We've had warm days and nice temperatures at night, and we've really started to get a good crop coming out of the ground here in Ruskin," Mr. Micelle said. "Expect good-quality Florida tomatoes and reasonable prices. Ruskin tomatoes are generally the best in many minds, and they will live up to that reputation this year. It's time for Ruskin to shine."

Added Mr. Brown, "What we need to do is encourage the marketplace to help us push these tomatoes through the market. When you have a market that has consistently been as high as this has for as long as it has, we have a contraction of demand. We need four slices of tomato on every sandwich instead of three. It's springtime, and people like to consume lots of tomatoes in spring. We need the marketplace to get out there and give them that opportunity."