Tomato prices remain higher than normal as a supply gap is slowly beginning to ease for south Florida’s winter production.

Growers are starting to resume Immokalee, Fla.-area pickings in light volume and expect to start central Florida’s spring crop two weeks later than normal.

January freezes and unfavorable growing conditions gutted south Florida production and have kept mature-greens prices in the $30s and escalated grape tomato prices to more than $50 per box.

Buyers should expect volume to remain low and prices to stay unusually high until spring production finally begins in May.

“Tomatoes will be in extremely short supply,” said Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Lipman Family Cos., Immokalee, which grows and packs tomatoes and vegetables through Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. and Custom Pak. “April will be a hard month to buy the tomatoes that you want. You will have to look really hard to find some.”

Six L’s has finished its central Florida plantings but Odell in late March said he does not see a lot of fruit on the plants.

He said south Florida crops transplanted before Christmas were just now setting fruit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 30 reported light supplies of south Florida mature-greens.

High prices mark slow starting Florida tomato deal

Doug Ohlemeier

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida packers in late March had packed 10 million equivalent cartons of round red tomatoes.

The USDA reported 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better from south Florida selling for $33.95 for 5x6s, $31.95 for 6x6s and $29.95 for 6x7s, more than double last season in early April when 5x6s sold for $15.95, 6x6s for $13.95 and 6x7s for $12.95-13.95.

For cherry tomatoes, the USDA said supplies were in too few hands to establish a market
On grape tomatoes from the same growing region, the USDA reported $28.95-29.95 for flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids, and 20-pound cartons of loose grapes sold for $54.95-55.95.

That’s considerably higher than the loose grapes that sold for $31.95 in late February.

On romas, the USDA reported $17.95 for 25-pound loose cartons of larges, with mediums at $16.95, down from $24.95-25.95 for large and $22.95-23.95 for mediums on March 29.

Ed Angrisani, partner with Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC, Palmetto, Fla., said the Immokalee deal has been packing only 10,000-15,000 cartons a day, considerably lower than usual.

According to the USDA, Florida packers in late March had packed 10 million equivalent cartons of round red tomatoes, half of the 20.1 million equivalent units it packed during the same time last season.

“Because of unusually cold weather, these crops have not developed in their normal pace,” Angrisani said in late March. “We are still waiting for warm weather to get them out of the ground well. It will be an unusual spring.”

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, said he expects prices to remain extremely high until central Florida begins volume in mid-May.

The Palmetto-Ruskin deal, which normally begins April 23-24, isn’t expected to start until May 3-4.

Spencer began picking light volumes of his Immokalee-area production in late March. He said the young crops that weren’t harmed by the January cold look well but shouldn’t produce a bumper crop.
“We are going to have plenty of tomatoes in May,” Spencer said in late March.