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After a disastrous season, Florida tomato growers look for hope

by Chip Carter | September 08, 2010
NAPLES, FL - How bad was this Florida tomato season? Bad enough that Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, began his annual state-of-the- industry address at the Florida Tomato Conference, held Sept. 7-12 at the Naples Ritz-Carlton, here, by leading attendees in a chant of "It's over."

"What do you say after a year like last year?" Mr. Brown asked the estimated 300 tomato industry members at the opening of the Sept. 8 session.

"It's over," the attendees mumbled back.

Mr. Brown was no doubt looking for a more enthusiastic reply, but given what the Florida tomato industry has endured over the last 12 months, the lack of enthusiasm was understandable.

So was the lack of playfulness.

Most produce industry conferences are equally geared toward both networking and work. The air of play that typically accompanies such events was noticeably absent from this year's tomato conference.

Even a luncheon scheduled for Sept. 9 featured no keynote speaker or other diversions. It was listed on the itinerary simply as a "working lunch."

While a dinner-dance and golf tournament were scheduled for later in the conference, attendees were definitely in work mode.

In opening remarks Sept. 8, Dan Cantliffe, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, took attendees on a trip back through time to 1985.

"Whether you were aware of it or not, you did not have any competition 25 years ago," Dr. Cantliffe told the assembled tomato growers, shippers, repackers, distributors and industry affiliates. "Foreign product was horrible, unacceptable. Now you're competing with quality tomatoes from Mexico, Canada and Holland."

Dr. Cantliffe reminded growers that just a quarter-century ago, the industry still had the multi-purpose fumigant methyl bromide at its disposal; labor availability was not an issue; a lack of federal restrictions on fertilizing meant there were no problems with plant nutrition or water sources; food safety was not a prominent factor; and the industry was not dealing with whitefly infestation, which "continues and will continue to be a major problem."

Dr. Cantliffe also pointed out that 25 years ago, there were more Florida tomato growers - and a larger staff at UF's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences - to help them out.

"The growers that still exist are larger," Dr. Cantliffe explained. "That means through volume you can make more money. But through volume you can also lose your shirt, and it becomes increasingly harder to get it back."

One thing Florida tomato growers do have on their side is a promising lineup of higher-yielding cultivars in the pipeline from IFAS that have proved resistant to pests like whiteflies and diseases like black spot and yellow leaf curl virus that currently hamper the industry.

They also received a reminder from Dr. Cantliffe that, "Through all of this, albeit with a much smaller organization than what it was in 1985, IFAS extension and researchers have been here at your side and trying to help."

With that, Mr. Brown took the podium. After the "it's over" chant quickly petered out, he got down to business.

Freezes in January devastated the winter crop, and persistent cool and rainy weather hindered recovery in February and March. At that point, tomatoes reached $30.45 a box.

"The problem is you've got to have something to sell to take advantage of the price," Mr. Brown said, noting that Florida tomato production plummeted from the expected annual average of 47 million to 50 million boxes to less than 28 million boxes this season. Most of those came on near the end of the deal, when prices had tumbled to as little as $3.50 a box.

"A lot of that we packed at the bottom end, and if you put the wrong price with the wrong volume, you don't get much money," Mr. Brown said, noting that revenues for the season were $402 million.

It was the second difficult financial season in a row for Florida growers, with last year's tally a disastrous $382 million. The industry typically generates annual revenues between $500 million and $700 million; in 2007-2008 the total was $616 million.

"It was an extremely tough year to produce tomatoes," Mr. Brown reiterated. "With the freezes, adverse and abnormal cold in February and March, many of the crops we put in the ground made no yield. We were welcomed with extremely low returns because despite demand for the product, [buyers] were not willing to pay a fair and adequate value. It was a long-term disaster, as you all know. It was a crushing end to the season when we got into June and couldn't sell the crop. The best thing we can do is forget about last year and focus on the future."

The outlook is not all gloom and doom, Mr. Brown noted. There were "a few things that were extremely successful last year."

In particular, the industry was successful in implementing a first-in-the- nation food-safety program that was adopted and will be regulated by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

"Food safety has been our number one overarching issue after the JalapeƱo disaster in 2008" when Florida tomatoes were wrongly blamed for a Salmonella outbreak that was ultimately traced to Mexican peppers, Mr. Brown said. "We were successful in the legislative session in getting the authority in the hands of FDACS for a food-safety program that is the first of its kind in the country."

Mr. Brown continued, "We've had success working toward a standardized audit around the hemisphere, especially with our partners in California; we have managed to get a tomato food-safety protocol established; that audit process has been used in California this summer, and it will be replacing the GAP program here in Florida. And we are moving forward as an industry to try and convince our customer base to accept that audit, to step away from the ridiculous game of one-upmanship of multiple audits. That's not based on good science or good sense."

Mr. Brown said that he was also encouraged by support the industry has received from partners like IFAS and state law enforcement agencies, which have relentlessly pursued producers of unregulated tomatoes.

"And the other extremely positive thing we can say about last year and this year going forward is that you are here," Mr. Brown told the attendees. "With a positive attitude and hard work - which you're all accustomed to - you can make next year's season one that will put this one behind us. We look forward to a very positive and successful 2010-2011 season."

Some Florida growers are apparently not convinced of that. Results of a recent survey conducted by IFAS and presented by Eugene McAvoy of the Hendry County Extension Service in Labelle, FL, showed producers are pessimistic about the future of the Florida tomato industry.

The survey polled 16 growers - "That doesn't sound like many, but given the number of growers left in Florida, it's statistically significant," Mr. McAvoy explained - divided into two categories: those that farm 500 acres or more of tomatoes, and those that farm fewer than 500 acres.

Asked "How do you rank the future of the tomato industry?" none of the larger growers rated it as "excellent or good," and just 28.6 percent of smaller growers did. Of the larger growers, 28.6 percent expected business as usual, compared to 42.9 percent of smaller growers. Almost three-quarters - 71.4 percent - of larger growers expect the future of the industry to be "bad or terrible" compared to 28.6 percent of smaller growers.

"Again, the challenge is there, obviously," Mr. McAvoy summed. "This has been traditionally a team effort between the grower, researcher, extension and our industry partners, and I think for us to move ahead as an industry that needs to remain a partnership and we must work together on these issues. We're not ever again going to compete on the basis of cheap anything. Research technology and advanced production techniques are going to be the way this industry remains competitive. The challenge is there."