NAPLES, Fla. — Florida’s tomato industry commiserated last year’s disastrous season and looked ahead to the upcoming season.

In his Sept. 8 yearly state of the Florida tomato industry talk at the Florida Joint Tomato Conference, Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, provided an overview of the 2009-10 season and looked to future challenges.

Florida tomato growers take stock after challenging season

Doug Ohelemeier

Faye Westfall (right), sales manager of DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview, Fla., talks with Terry Harris, salesman with West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., Angela Harris and Chuck Bruno, DiMare Fresh-Tampa’s vice president and general manager on Sept. 7 during the Florida Joint Tomato Conference in Naples.

He noted how January’s freeze destroyed crops and abnormally cold February and March temperatures prevented crop growth.

The season came to a crushing end in May and June after the market, which had paid higher than normal prices during the winter shortage, had little appetite to continue paying strong prices, Brown said.

“It was an extremely tough year to produce tomatoes,” he said. “It was a long-term disaster. The best thing we can do is forget about last year and focus on the future and what can be done and what this industry has historically done.”

Brown called food safety the industry’s overarching issue and noted how Florida tomato leaders successfully persuaded the state Legislature to provide the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services authority to enforce tomato farm and packinghouse safety laws.

The changes made Florida the only state to have enacted mandatory food safety rules.

During the 2009-10 season, which ended in June, Brown said Florida growers packed a little less than 28 million 25-pound equivalent boxes of mature-green tomatoes, down from the 47 million cartons growers packed in 2008-09.

Prices averaged $14.39 a box and ranged from $3.53-29.38.

The $14.39 average — higher than last year’s $8.13 average — is illusory because growers didn’t have much product to sell during most of their winter season, Brown said.

Brown’s talk kicked off the Florida Tomato Institute seminars that focused on grower production issues.

During the sessions, Gene McAvoy, a multicounty vegetable extension agent in LaBelle, discussed a survey of the state’s tomato growers that he and other researchers with the Gainesville-based University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences conducted to determine tomato research needs.

“The last couple of years haven’t been good for Florida’s tomato industry,” McAvoy said. “We haven’t seen it this cold since records began to be kept in 1888. Diseases have been particularly devastating the past few years. On top of that, you have increasing government regulations. You can see the alphabet soup in acronyms growers have had to deal with. All of this has come together to create a perfect storm.”

The conference, which continues with grower group meetings and a banquet, has drawn high attendance.

More than 420 people registered for the convention, similar to the last year’s attendance, said Samantha Winters, the tomato committee’s director of education and promotion.