IMMOKALEE, Fla. — As tomato flavor is closely tied to its freshness, it follows that Florida and southeastern consumers could receive a fresher product from supermarkets that merchandise the state’s tomatoes.

While Florida tomato growers would like to participate more in the regionally grown movements, they suffer from the fact that their production window has them shipping product throughout the U.S. — not only to local or regional areas — when most growing regions can’t produce product.

“The connotation is that locally grown is small growers in a small production window,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

“That’s not true. If I’m a producer in Palmetto or Ruskin, for that window, we have two distinct seasons, the fall and spring. During that time we are local producers. It just so happens that we grow for all the market because there are few other areas that can produce during those times of the year,” he said.

“We are locally grown and beyond for a good part of the year because of weather and the inability of other areas of the country to produce January through April.”

Not the real world

Ed Angrisani, partner with Palmetto-based Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC, agreed and said the local grown term can’t really apply to tomatoes most of the year.

“Regional grown is great if you’re growing on 20 acres,” he said. “But that’s not the real world. We supply the entire country and Puerto Rico. We couldn’t stay open supplying a state or only part of the country. If you’re going to do all of this, you have to have enough volume that you can afford to do it.

“All you need for something like that (locally grown) is a pickup truck. You couldn’t afford to build a packinghouse and have migrant housing for pickers and packers. The locally grown deals don’t make for jobs or help the economy. That’s a hobby, not a business.”

Jon Esformes, chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, said he doesn’t see interest in regional deals as negatively affecting big shipping regions such as Florida.

“Anything that will heighten the awareness of the tomato category and increase consumption, I’m in favor of,” he said. “Those local initiatives were more focused on late spring and summer programs, which more than anything could increase consumption.”

More locavores

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said he’s noticing more chefs have become locavores.

He said he’s hearing more interest in the regionally grown concept.

Individuals Weisinger meets often ask him where they can purchase some foods grown locally.

“They want taste and they want fresh,” Weisinger said. “We in Florida need to market to our own people. We are the fourth largest state in the union, or at least we were before the housing dustup. We need to sell our produce, which is healthful, economical and good-tasting, to the people who inhabit our state.”

Weisinger said his operation is trying to sell more produce to customers wanting regionally grown product. He said he hopes some of his competitors try for similar sales.

Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of the Lipman Family Cos., which owns tomato and vegetable grower-shipper Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. and produce distributor Custom Pak, said Florida’s regional supermarket chains promote the locally grown product.

“You can walk into these stores and see farm-grown produce in them,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that we get the promotions that we like. They promote it to a degree but not as much as we think they should.” 

More involvement urged

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, said he wishes more southeastern retail chains promoted more of the tomatoes grown in their backyards.

“They should participate in locally grown,” he said. “It disappoints me that over the past 20 years, a lot of the southeastern chains during the wintertime have chosen to buy Mexican product. Their customers I think appreciate it when they do supply American produce because of the food safety issue.”

Though Spencer said he’s a firm believer in northeastern buyers procuring locally grown product during the spring and during the cold months when northeastern growers can’t grow produce, Spencer said those buyers might as well purchase from American companies that use advanced food safety practices.

“We just like to point out that they need to support the American produce whenever they can,” Spencer said.

Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, said she is hearing more interest in regionally grown from southeastern chains.

“There is an interest on the part of people to eat locally grown produce,” she said.

“In terms of the population, there is a heavy amount of people that eat a lot of tomatoes in the Southeast. A lot of those people are in Florida. For our retail partners here in the state, we have point-of-purchase material that underscores the fresh Florida tomato brand.”

Michael Lacey, director of sales for Santa Sweets Inc., Plant City, said regional chains such as Publix and Sweetbay have been strong supporters of locally grown and sustainability movements.

“Freight is a big issue,” he said. “Being able to pull product locally is a big deal nowadays.”

Interest in branded product, however, drops in such locally grown movements, Lacey said, because consumers associate locally grown product with smaller growers.

Santa Sweets grows tomatoes throughout the year in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey and from Mexico through Nogales, Ariz.

More retailers should promote the regional produce, said Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Plant City.

“As a consumer, I have not seen that part of the equation really pressed into emotion yet when I go into stores,” he said. “I would love to see some of these regional chains embrace our product more than they already do.”