(Sept. 13) NAPLES, Fla. — The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, during the 2002 Joint Tomato Conference in Naples, voted unanimously Sept. 5 to add a per-carton environmental surcharge of 25 cents to shipments for the upcoming season.

The quarter increase will be tacked on to the existing 95-cent handling fee, bringing the overall handling fee for each 25-pound carton of Florida tomatoes during the 2002-03 season to $1.20. The increase — all of which will be earmarked for growers — will bring Florida’s handling fee in line with those of California and Nogales, Ariz., shippers.

Assuming production close to last season’s 54.6 million cartons, the additional quarter per box could mean more than $13 million to Florida tomato producers.

But the main purpose of the 25-cent increase, exchange members said, is to cover the rapidly increasing costs associated with the phaseout of methyl bromide, the soil fumigant widely used by growers of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Western tomato growers last year began assessing a similar surcharge to cover rising energy costs.

“Unless we can find ways to (recoup) some of these significant costs, some of these farms don’t stand a chance of surviving,” said Tony DiMare, general manager of DiMare Ruskin Inc., Ruskin.

The phaseout of methyl bromide — considered an ozone-depleting chemical — is beginning to reach a crisis point, growers said. Under the 1999 Montreal Protocol, the phaseout must be complete in industrialized nations by 2005 and developing countries by 2015.

Use of the fumigant stands at 50% of the 1991 level, and in 2003 the phaseout mandates that usage drop to 30% of that benchmark.

DiMare said the cost of methyl bromide has quadrupled from about $150 per acre to more than $600 per acre since the phaseout began. DiMare said the industry accepted the energy surcharge levied by Western tomato growers because everyone recognized the existence of a clear problem, and he said he expects similar acceptance on the new environmental fee.

Also at the conference:

  • Members of the growers exchange discussed the effectiveness of a policy they instituted last season — a 30-day vs. the old 45-day slow-pay report. Reggie Brown, who heads the staff that administers all three Orlando-based organizations — the tomato committee, the tomato growers exchange and the Florida Tomato Exchange — said the 30-day slow-pay report was “very successful” in helping the industry collect its due.

  • John Himmelberg, the exchange’s legal counsel in Washington, D.C., gave an overview of how country-of-origin legislation passed after 25 years of effort. He said guidelines on how the new law will be implemented should be out by Sept. 30, and he has forwarded comments suggesting regulators take a flexible, simple approach to enforcement “and do kind of a light touch on the retailers.”