(Jan. 2) HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Buyers can expect those lighter-than-normal tomato supplies out of Florida to continue indefinitely.

Grower-shippers in the Sunshine State have been battling poor yields since their fall deal began, and the anticipated upswing in production keeps getting pushed back later and later. Some are now suggesting there won’t be a return to normal volume until mid-March.

That’s apparently because El Niño has become a more persistent force on Florida’s weather patterns this winter than forecasters had predicted.

“With El Niño in place we’ve already had a wet winter, and the forecast is for continued wet weather,” said Tony DiMare, general manager of DiMare Homestead Inc., Homestead. “It looks like we’re going to be battling a series of cold fronts with rain, followed by cool weather.”

DiMare said disease has spread in tomato fields throughout the state, which has contributed to poor yields.

“But the quality on the fruit has been excellent, and I look for it to remain that way unless we get a lot more rain,” he said.

The law of supply and demand has been in evidence throughout the Florida tomato deal. Double digit f.o.b.s have been in place for months as shipments have trailed demand. Whether the market holds up in January will largely be a question of Mexican shipments, which should pick up seasonally by mid-January.

Florida shippers said it’s hard to get reliable information out of Mexico, but growers there reportedly have battled heavy rains themselves.

Shippers reported prices for 25-pound cartons of Florida tomatoes in late December at $14-16 for 5x6s, $12-13 for 6x6s and $8-10 for 6x7s.

Prices were $8 for larger sizes last year, as low as $5 for smaller sizes.

Shipments the first three weeks of December were 1.16 million cartons, 1.76 million cartons and 1.75 million cartons, respectively. That compares to an average of about 2.5 million weekly cartons shipped during the same time a year ago.

Mark Mecca, a salesman for Mecca Farms Inc., Lake Worth, said the smallish size of his firm’s tomatoes was becoming less of an issue as cooler temperatures allowed the fruit to more fully mature before harvest.

“Everything looks real good so far, but volume is still a little light,” Mecca said. “There’s still a shortage of vine ripes, from what I see.”

Ed Angrisani, a salesman for Immokalee-based Tomato Man Inc. and Homestead-based Gulfstream Tomato Growers Ltd., said most of Florida’s tomatoes by year’s end were coming out of the Immokalee area. Homestead was just beginning production, but acreage there is only a fraction of what it once was as only two major packinghouses remain.

“Nobody’s very heavy (with supplies),” Angrisani said. “I don’t expect the volume of Florida tomatoes to ever increase this winter. As a matter of fact, the volume may decrease. The whole question of what the market does will be up to Mexico.”