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Florida tomatoes getting clobbered by 'ludicrous' spring market

by Chip Carter | May 26, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- In a worst-case scenario, Florida tomato growers who lost most of their winter crop now find they have no market for recovered spring plantings.

With a mammoth glut coming on at once, tomatoes that cost at least $8 a box to produce were selling for $4 per box on May 25. To make matters worse, drenching rains have muddied fields and made harvesting even more costly.

Two weeks of freezing weather in January devastated Florida tomatoes, and a too-cool spring delayed growth of salvaged and replanted crops. When hot weather finally came on, Mother Nature accelerated the growing program. The result: a spring season that is typically eight to 10 weeks was crammed into a four-week window this year.

High prices over the winter and early spring contracted demand for tomatoes. Many restaurants cut back on use, and prices at retail were sky-high following the freeze and never returned to normal. As a result, consumers shied away from pricy product, and now the industry is hoping those customers will return for a bargain - or at least have a chance to do so.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, cautioned May 25 that any rescue must come quickly for the beleaguered industry. Retailers have been slow to lower high price points established over the last few months. Even while growers were getting $4 a box (plus a $1.95 handling surcharge), in late May, consumers were still paying $2.99 a pound for round tomatoes at retail.

"We've still got tomatoes and they're maturing moment by moment in the field," Mr. Brown said. "Consumers ought to be able to get tomatoes at a fair price. They're not going to keep, and the warmer the weather and more frequent the rain, the less there are going to be. A really good retailer, especially in the Southeast, has a lot of local product that could be moved in a very good value for their customers. It's a damn shame somebody isn't jumping on that."

Bob Spencer, vice president of marketing for West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, FL, said, "You can't put lipstick on this pig. It's ugly."

Mr. Brown agreed. "It's a double train wreck. Any time you have a freeze event, there's always a second phase. We all knew it was coming, and we got here and hit the wall. The second phase of the train wreck is now. I've heard some numbers that are absolutely ludicrous. It's so sad when you put so much energy in trying to make a crop, and have so much expectation of trying to turn a bad season into a better season, and Mother Nature deals you a hand like this."

The price drop was precipitated earlier in May when one Florida tomato supplier slashed prices to $5 a box below market levels on product he did not have, both Messrs. Brown and Spencer told The Produce News in early May. That started the slide -- and exacerbated it -- but did not cause it, both men agreed.

"Had he not done what he did, where we are now would have been averted by about four or five days," Mr. Spencer said. "We could have gotten a little more money in our pockets. But the reality is we were going to end up here eventually. There was just no way to avoid this train wreck once we had left the station. You just try to get through it, survive, realize you'll be back in the fall and there will be better days ahead."

With crop insurance and spring's earlier high price points, some Florida tomato growers may still salvage something from the year.

"I would say the break-even point will probably be the best outcome for us," Mr. Spencer said. "I think we can get to that or maybe make a little, but that's a best-case scenario."

A late-breaking deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's programs for families in need was expected to make a slight dent -- about 50,000 cases - - in the tomato glut, Mr. Brown said, but it would not be significant enough to save the season.

"This spring has been extremely bad - $4 a box and it costs at least $8 to grow them. It's absolutely ludicrous," he said. "This is about as tough a year as we've had in a long time. After the freeze event, we had nothing for 60 days, and then the yields on the replants were virtually nothing. Now we have tomatoes stacking up, the yields are out there, but the market is zip."

Asked if there might be some silver lining to the Florida spring tomato season, the best Mr. Brown could come up with was, "This deal is getting pretty close to being over."