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Single audit, new variety give hope to Florida tomato growers

by Chip Carter | September 16, 2010
NAPLES, FL — It seemed unthinkable — two solid weeks of freezing weather deep into Florida in the middle of January, right in the opening days of the tomato season.

But in 2010, it happened. Growers lost 80 percent of the crop in the field, young plants expected to bear later in the spring were destroyed, and replants came on too late and brought too little at market.

After a devastating season, Florida tomato growers are hoping that Mother Nature is friendlier in the coming 12 months.

But since growers cannot control the weather, they instead made plans at the 2010 Florida Tomato Conference, held Sept. 7-12 at the Naples Ritz-Carlton, here, to control what they can, cross their collective fingers and hope for the best.

Chiefly, growers are hoping that retailers and the food service industry will embrace the single-audit standard they have worked tirelessly — alongside the California industry — to hammer out over the past two years.

Earlier this year, the state of Florida adopted with virtually no changes those industry-written regulations and food-safety guidelines to be administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

It is now Florida law — the first of its kind in the nation — that all tomato operations be inspected under state auspices, though there is nothing to prevent growers, shippers or distributors from subjecting themselves to private audits in a game of one-upmanship that could provide a competitive edge — especially for larger players that can afford multiple audits.

Said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, "It will be a challenge to get that agreement, but we have had discussions with a number of major brands in the country, and they appear willing to step forward and say if the audit is done by a credible auditing group, they will accept that audit. That's where we’re trying to go. We spent the last two years developing the protocol. In that process we engaged a number of distribution companies and brand owners and we are striving as an industry across the country to push the issue that once the audit is done [under Florida law] it doesn’t need to be duplicated by someone’s variation of that audit. It is not a finished process, but we’ve got an 80-90 percent chance of succeeding."

Another top card in the Florida industry’s hand is a new promotional campaign rolled out by the Florida Tomato Committee at the conference. Marketing and promotional programs for the 2011 season will position Justin Timineri, executive chef of FDACS, as ambassador for Florida tomatoes, focusing on positive news and engaging consumers with simple, healthy and tasty recipes.

There also will be customized promotions with retailers in the South and Northeast involving sales and display contests, along with print, electronic and social media campaigns, and consumer and foodservice recipe contests. Meanwhile, other problems are rearing their heads for the Florida tomato industry. Crown rot is now “endemic,” and yellow leaf curl virus is a growing concern, according to Monica Ozores-Hampton from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences.

William Thurechek from the U.S. Department of Agriculture told growers that spot wilt was found in Florida fields in 2009 and again in the spring of 2010. “I think it could be a serious problem,” he said.

Cyndi McKenzie from the USDA added that whiteflies remain a threat, although the Q variety of the insect — the most difficult to control — has not been seen recently in the six Florida counties where it showed up in 2006.

But there is help on the way. According to Jay Scott of the IFAS, a host of new tomato varieties in the pipeline that show resistant traits could arrive on the scene shortly to help Florida growers.

Chief among the new varieties is the trademarked Tasti-Lee, which has field- tested well and is going through consumer tests via the Whole Foods supermarket chain.

Early consumer testing pitted the Tasti-Lee against other field-grown tomatoes and cluster tomatoes grown on the vine in hothouses. The results convinced Dr. Scott that “Tasti-Lee is a good way to get tomatoes into the market against greenhouse tomatoes. We’re interested in getting this variety into the supermarket.”

Seed from the Tasti-Lee — which has a high sugar content, robust flavor profile and deep red color throughout — will be available to growers for the first time this year, he said.

That is good news at the end of a season that saw Florida tomato production plummet to fewer than 28 million boxes this season from the typical annual average of 47 million to 50 million boxes. Most of those came on near the end of the deal, when prices had dropped to as low as $3.50 a box.

In other news from the conference, the Florida Tomato Committee, the Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange elected officers for the upcoming season.

For the committee, Toby Purse, chief financial officer and chief accounting officer of the Lipman Family Cos. in Immokalee, FL, will serve as president; John Harllee, president of Harllee Packing Inc., in Palmetto, FL, is vice president; Kern Carpenter, owner of Kern Carpenter Farms Inc. in Homestead, FL, is secretary; and Mike Sullivan, chief financial officer for Gargiulo Inc. in Naples, FL, is treasurer.

For the Florida Tomato Exchange, officers are Jim Grainger, partner in Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC in Palmetto, FL, and owner of Grainger Farms, as president; Bob Spencer, sales manager for West Coast Tomato Inc. in Palmetto, FL, as vice president; Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. in Palmetto, FL, as secretary; and Mr. Sullivan as treasurer.

Mr. Spencer will serve as president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, while Mr. Heller is vice president, Mr. Carpenter is secretary and Mr. Sullivan is treasurer.