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Samantha Winters and Reggie Brown represented the Florida Tomato Committee at the closing banquet of the 2011 Florida Tomato Conference. (Photos by Chip Carter)

NAPLES, FL — Despite hard freezes that took Florida tomato growers out of the game in the early part of the 2010-11 season, this year was decidedly more positive than the 2009-10 campaign. That was the takeaway from the 2011 Florida Joint Tomato Conference held Sept. 8-11 at the Ritz-Carlton, here, where the proceedings were much more upbeat than at the 2010 meeting.

According to Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Committee and manager of the Florida Tomato Exchange, Florida growers this season (which ended in June) packed 36.1 million 25-pound cartons of mature green tomatoes, up from 27.9 million in 2009-10 — a season that was marred by disastrous freezes. And while this season’s totals are a welcome increase from 2009-10, they still fell short of the annual average of roughly 50 million cartons that Florida growers typically pack, due primarily to three separate hard freezes in December that wiped out most of that month’s crop and set back production.

Better yet, growers reaped $431 million for their efforts, up from $402 million in 2009-10 and far better than the $382 million collected in 2008-09 when a glut of product tanked the market.

Growers at this year’s conference celebrated the upswing. More than 430 people registered for the convention (about the same as last year) but the mood was decidedly better than the 2010 show.

Some growers joked that one could tell this season was better than last by the fare served at the conference’s numerous receptions and banquets. Last year, attendees noshed on miniature hot dogs, burgers and barbecue sandwiches; this year, fresh-carved roast beef and turkey, and risotto-stuffed hors d’oeuvres were the order of the day.

Florida’s production surge in 2010-11 was fueled in large part by an atypical hard freeze that dipped deep into western Mexico, wiping out product from that area in the early months of 2011 and opening a window for Florida growers to pack more tomatoes after their operations came back on-line in full force in January.

Mr. Brown said that the bad weather in Mexico “turned the market upside down for the industry.”

Florida growers would have done even better without the December losses. Yields-per-acre were down 200 boxes to an average of 1,400 boxes.

Said Mr. Brown, “The game is unit-cost. We need to manage our costs on the production side and maximize our yields to make us aggressive, strong, viable and competitive going forward.”

Florida growers will get some help from the scientific community in that pursuit. Researchers from the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agriculture Sciences unveiled new varieties with disease-resistant traits that will soon be available. In years past, growers were able to use the multi-purpose fumigant methyl bromide to control pests, pathogens and weeds. But with methyl bromide no longer available due to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, growers are turning to science for a competitive edge.

Florida growers funneled $250,000 into seven IFAS research projects last year, funded by a box tax on their product. The investment will soon pay dividends, according to IFAS Associate Dean for Research Mary Duryea.

“The research you chose to support was in breeding and variety development, and crop-protection technologies,” Dr. Duryea told growers. “It’s a competitive process; we start with providing scientific reviews of the [proposed research projects] then the industry reviews then selects the proposals to fund, and the research begins.”

The ongoing research has focused on improvements focused in yield, fruit quality, heat tolerance and pest resistance. More than 2,000 potential varieties were screened and whittled down to a handful that show promise.

One in particular, FL 8806, field-tested in Homestead, FL, last winter, satisfies most of those requirements, Dr. Duryea said.

A hybrid between the FL 8735 and the patented “Tasti-Lee” variety IFAS released for commercial production last year, the 8806 has a deep red interior and provides yields “almost twice as much as the control groups,” Dr. Duryea said, with “fruit size comparable to the standards. We’ve got something with great flavor, quality and early yield that may do better in resistance as well.”

Researchers also unveiled new technology that will let Florida farmers fight pests and pathogens via their smart phones.

In 2007, growers first met with IFAS researchers about a technological approach to combating those issues. Often, early intervention is the key to success. The resulting research led to the development of a “decision support system” that utilizes on-line and mobile technology to help growers track, fight and spread news about pest and pathogen problem popping up around the state, according to Bill Turechek, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Fort Pierce, FL.

Growers can use their smart phones to upload data while still in the field. That information goes to a central server, where it is processed and then shown in real-time reports and management recommendations accessible to any grower participating in the program.