"We're blessed in Arkansas this year," Gary Margolis, owner and president of Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., headquartered in Boca Raton, FL, told The Produce News May 24. "The storms and tornados have fallen to the north and to the south of Triple M Farms, our growing partners in Hamburg, Arkansas."
Triple M Farms is a four-generation, family-owned operation and a partnership between the Meeks and Moffatt families. The owners, James Meeks and Wendell Moffatt, have been lifelong friends and are partners who have left the antiquated tomato auction system and opened a state-of-the-art facility.
Gem Tomato has worked with Triple M for decades in what Mr. Margolis said is a strong partnership, but added that it was a tough winter for tomato lovers.
"Back-to-back bad weather in Florida and Mexico caused a major shortage," he said. "Heavy rains in the Palmetto and Ruskin areas of Florida delayed the spring season and caused a lot of disease pressure. These areas typically have an abundance of tomatoes in April and May, but production was reduced this year. That deal came and went leaving a big void."
The result is that the demand on tomatoes from Arkansas will be very strong. Mr. Margolis said that it is the first of the two vine-ripe deals of the summer. Arkansas' tomato program runs from June 10 to July 20, giving Gem Tomato a good punch for the July 4 holiday.
"Triple M planted aggressively one week earlier than normal due to good weather conditions," said Mr. Margolis. "These guys are true experts at what they do. Hybrid tomatoes are difficult to grow. They take a lot of attention, which has caused many growers to drop out of producing them. Triple M has picked up small parcels of high-quality ground, which helps to reduce the disease problem."
Triple M also rotates, leaving the fields fallow for periods of time in order to ensure better quality and yields.
"The fields look excellent this year," said Mr. Margolis. "We expect a great yield and good quality fruit. Triple M is anticipating a one-week early start to the season."
He said that regional demand and high fuel prices are keeping Arkansas tomato distribution closer to home. Distribution has narrowed somewhat over the past several years, and today most supply goes to the Midwest.
"We don't focus on how high prices will be in any given year, including one like this where the demand will be high," said Mr. Margolis. "We focus on building relationships with customers and getting fair prices. A good portion of our Arkansas tomatoes are committed, and to the right people. Some are on contract and others on open market, but the product is spoken for before harvesting starts."
Mr. Margolis, who has been in the tomato business for 30 years, was originally producing mature green tomatoes in Florida. His business has turned full circle, and his attention is now focused on 100 percent vine-ripe field product.
"Our local movement has helped our spring and summer programs," he explained. "We work with small and moderate size growers who want to do a good job. We're still here and surviving in an industry that has seen its share of adversity."
The greenhouse industry has caused some pressure on field tomato production, Mr. Margolis said, noting that reduced acreage over the years is a sure sign of this.
"On the other hand, if we didn't have greenhouse product, what would have happened this past winter?" he wondered. "There simply would not have been tomatoes on the shelf."
Despite the added competition from the greenhouse industry, he said that people are still committed to field-grown vine-ripened product.
"No one will ever take that away from us," he said. "When we're producing, we have the ability to offer an abundance of well-priced and high-quality product.
"We're status quo this year, and we're on a path that we're very comfortable with today," he added. "We're excited about the summer movement and about our future."