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Florida tomato growers to look ahead when they gather for annual conference

by Chip Carter | September 01, 2010
The 2010 season was one the Florida tomato industry would rather forget. Devastating winter weather followed by over-production that led to plummeting prices made for a double whammy that battered grower-shippers from January through June. The industry will gather Sept. 7-12 at the Ritz- Carlton in Naples, FL, for the 35th annual Florida Tomato Conference aiming to learn how to avoid a repeat of 2010.

As of Sept. 1, 427 industry members and representatives had registered for the conference, hosted annually by the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Committee and Florida Tomato Exchange. That represents an increase over last year's attendance, according to Samantha Winters, director of education and promotions for the committee.

For Florida tomato grower-shippers, "This spring [was] extremely bad — $4 a box and it costs at least $8 to grow them," said Reggie Brown, committee manager and executive vice president of the exchange. “Absolutely ludicrous. 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, then the yields on the replants were virtually nothing. Once the yields [were] out there, the market [was] zip.”

Food safety will also be top-of-mind when industry members gather. The first official event on the itinerary is an extensive food-safety training workshop scheduled to run from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the conference’s opening day. Officials from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services’ fruit and vegetable inspection division will explain the standardization of the tomato audit metrics on which the exchange has been working with the United Fresh Produce Association. Florida tomato industry members have had much input on those new guidelines, and the collaboration has led to a set of new regulations that should be ready for unveiling by the time the conference kicks off, according to Mr. Brown.

The Florida Tomato Institute meeting will convene at 9 a.m. Sept. 8, during which Mr. Brown will deliver a state-of-the-industry address and scientists from the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences in Lake Alfred, FL, will discuss results of tomato production research projects conducted over the 12 months since the last conference.

After a welcoming reception Wednesday evening, conference attendees will get back to work when the Florida Tomato Exchange annual meeting gets underway at 9 a.m. During the gathering, officers will be elected and Ms. Winters will present the Florida tomato industry’s 2010-11 promotional campaign. The rest of the day’s schedule will unfold nonstop, with an exchange board of directors working lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by the tomato committee’s organizational meeting from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m.

After a 6:30 p.m. cocktail reception, conference attendees will have a chance to unwind at a dinner-dance scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The conference will conclude with a golf tournament Friday morning at the Colony Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs, FL.