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While it was not enough to salvage a disastrous season, Florida tomato growers were happy to find a market for at least another $6 million worth of product in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced plans June 4 to spend up to that amount to immediately purchase fresh Florida tomatoes for federal food nutrition assistance programs.

Florida tomato growers are still reeling after freezing weather wiped out the winter crop, and a too-cool spring resulted in a glut of product coming on at once. In May, tomatoes that cost at least $8 a box to produce were selling for as little as $4 a box.

"USDA has been carefully monitoring the situation in Florida in order to determine how we can help growers get through the very difficult situation caused by the freeze earlier this year," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said June 4. "The purchase announced today will provide Florida fresh tomato farmers with some relief, stimulate the economy, and provide high-quality, nutritious food to people in need."

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), a 2010 candidate for Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, said, "I commend USDA's actions regarding fresh Florida tomatoes that assist not only in helping Florida tomato growers recover from the freeze situation earlier this year that adversely impacted the tomato market but will also provide for the health and nutritional well-being of American food assistance recipients."

In January, Mr. Putnam toured southwest Florida tomato fields in the wake of devastating freezes that left much of the state as barren as a lunar landscape. In March, he was at the helm of a congressional delegation letter to Mr. Vilsack requesting federal action to mitigate the effects of the disastrous weather via federal emergency food assistance programs.

Each year, USDA purchases a wide variety of nutritious food products to support the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and the Emergency Food Assistance Program. USDA also makes emergency food purchases for distribution to victims of natural disasters.

As much as 80 percent of Florida's winter tomato crop was destroyed by a stretch of freezing weather that saw the longest duration in recorded history. Temperatures dipped below freezing as far south as Homestead, FL, for multiple nights throughout the first two weeks of 2010.

Florida growers replanted lost crops after the freeze, in addition to scheduled plantings. Cool temperatures throughout the spring resulted in a glut and forced a season that is normally eight to 10 weeks into roughly a four-week window.

Growers who wish to participate in the program should go on-line to www.ams.usda.gov for more information.