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Sun finally shining on Florida tomato growers as market booms

by Chip Carter | February 18, 2011

021711floridatomato PALMETTO, FL -- This time a year ago, Florida tomato growers were singing the blues. A dozen consecutive nights of subfreezing weather in January and February wiped out the 2010 crop. Just 12 months later, the tables have turned, as Florida tomatoes are in high demand with good supply in the wake of freezing weather that clobbered the Mexican crop in early February.

This time last year, Bob Spencer, sales manager for West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, FL, was telling customers, “I understand from watching television commercials that Rosetta Stone is the fastest way to learn Spanish.” With few Florida tomatoes surviving the early 2010 freezes, buyers turned to Mexico as the sole source of winter tomatoes.

Freezes in December 2010 clobbered the Florida tomato crop again, and the industry had practically no product for the month. Younger plants survived the cold, though, and have come on in full force.

Now, Florida grower-shippers with volume on-hand -- like West Coast -- are processing orders as fast as they can. Others that do not yet have volume but will soon, as December replants come on board, are chomping at the bit to get back in the game.

As of Feb. 16, Florida tomatoes were commanding $37.50 per box, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2010, growers rushed to replant after the January and February freezes. The resulting glut compressed the Florida market into a four-week window. Prices plummeted to as little as $4.50 per box, and some growers could not find buyers at any price.

Now Florida tomatoes are shipping round-the-clock and bringing premium prices. One grower told The Produce News that a production run that was worth $300,000 when the day began had increased in value to $1.6 million by the time it was packed and shipped later that day due to ever-escalating price points.

The last three years have been unusually harsh on Florida tomato growers. They were wrongly blamed for a 2008 Salmonella outbreak (later traced to Mexican Jalapeno peppers) that throttled sales well into the 2009 season. Florida growers shipped about 25 million boxes of tomatoes -- roughly half the typical volume. When winter weather wiped out the 2010 crop, Mexican growers shipped 22 million boxes of tomatoes to the United States, about 7 million more than usual.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way.

“You hate to see anyone suffer,” Mr. Spencer said, “but there are some Florida growers who have been on the edge of disaster for some time now, and hopefully this will help some of those guys make up for what they’ve lost the last three years.”

West Coast’s hardy young plants put the company in the thick of a boom market. Other growers, like Palmetto-based Taylor & Fulton, were just days away from having promotable volumes and were excited about the market.

“I just hope it holds up,” Ed Angrisani, who owns Taylor & Fulton with partners Jim Grainger and Brian Turner, said in mid-February. “We’ve had everything under the sun thrown at us the last couple of years.”

Some Florida growers speculate -- or perhaps hope -- that the Mexican industry will not reach full volume again before early May. An early April return may be more likely. In either case, an exclusive market window like that could undo a lot of the damage the Florida tomato industry has sustained over the last three years.

Said one struggling grower, who asked to remain unidentified, “That’s the way it is in this business. You might lose money two or three years in a row, then hit a home run. A lot of people in Florida are going to get well off this.”