IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Freezing weather destroyed up to 70% of Florida’s Immokalee-area winter tomato production.

Freeze destroys up to 70% of Immokalee winter tomatoes

Doug Ohlemeier

The nearly two weeks of subfreezing temperatures destroyed up to 70% of Immokalee, Fla.-area winter tomatoes. Florida tomato shippers and industry people said it may be early March before volume returns to normal.

Damage to the state’s tomato crop is becoming better known after growers endured nearly two weeks of overnight freezing temperatures.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said a wildcard industry guess has the freeze destroying about 70% of the Immokalee crop.

Brown said buyers should expect production from Homestead and on the East Coast but said the deal’s volume should fall off for about six weeks, starting the week of Jan. 25.

“They are salvaging what they can,” he said Jan. 18. “Damage depends on where you are and what kind of precautions you took and how well it worked. Some covered their young plants up and I have been told there are live blossoms in Immokalee today.  Some who didn’t have the resources or availability to cover them up, for those plants, a significant portion may be dead or damaged so severely they are the equivalent of being dead.”

While other growing regions produce limited volume, Immokalee produces the bulk of Florida’s winter tomatoes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wasn’t reporting prices on Jan. 18 in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato Inc., said prices for mature-green tomatoes from south Florida were running in the low $20s.

That’s similar to Jan. 15 when the USDA reported 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% No. 1 or better from south Florida before handling charges selling for $23.95 for 5x6s and $21.95 for 6x6s and 6x7s.

Spencer, who has about 250 acres north and south of Immokalee, said he lost all of his winter Immokalee crop.

“Whatever we were going to harvest in the next 45 days was lost,” he said Jan. 18. “We should be back in business (in Immokalee) the 25th of February. We had some spring plantings come through.”

While the USDA on Jan. 15 said supply was insufficient to establish a market for cherry tomatoes, on grape tomatoes, the USDA reported $40.95-41.95 for 20-pound cartons of loose grapes, up from $37.95-39.95 on Jan. 12.

Flats of 12 1-pint baskets of grapes sold for $20.95, up from $19.95-20.95 on Jan. 12.

For romas, the USDA reported  $15.95-17.95 for 25-pound loose cartons of extra large, compared to $17.95-19.95 on Jan. 14.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist is asking for federal disaster assistance.

Crist wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting a disaster declaration for all of the state’s 67 counties.

“No sector of agriculture appears to have been spared,” Crist said in the Jan. 15 letter. “Citrus, sugar cane, nursery crops, tropical fish, sweet corn, tomatoes, snap beans, strawberries, blueberries, peppers, avocados, mangoes and oats are some of the crops that appear to have sustained significant damage.”