PALMETTO, Fla. — Del Monte Fresh Produce’s entrance into tomatoes could significantly affect Florida’s tomato deal.

In September, Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., purchased land in Florida and Virginia formerly owned by the defunct East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. in a series of bankruptcy auctions.

The Coral Gables-based Del Monte was the high bidder for 3,370 acres in central and south Florida and packing operations that the Mulberry-based East Coast used to grow and pack tomatoes.

Del Monte also purchased 2,481 acres and packing operations in Virginia from East Coast Brokers.

Del Monte expects its first harvest in the spring of 2014 and plans to grow mature-greens, romas and grape tomatoes as well as a limited supply of vine-ripe rounds and cherry tomatoes, said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing.

The acquisition complements Del Monte’s Costa Rica and Guatemala greenhouse operations, and the company is eyeing a successful Florida season, he said.

“Similar to what we have done for other Del Monte products, we plan to work with our customers to grow the category and encourage consumption of this versatile product by consumers of all ages,” Christou said.

“We plan to engage retailers, foodservice providers, repackers, wholesalers and brokers as part of an integrated tomato program.”

“Tomatoes remain one of the most important products in the produce department, and Florida is a major player in the North American tomato category. This acquisition is further proof of our commitment to our tomato category.”

Many big industry organizations have entered the tomato industry over the years, and to Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato Inc., it’s an interesting process to watch.

“Welcome to our world,” he said. “(Del Monte) will go through the normal growing pains most companies do when they enter a new industry. People in the industry are survivors that have gone through good times and bad times and have become very adept at growing and marketing tomatoes. They will learn a lot in the next few years and bring a lot of their expertise into the picture.”

Jon Esformes, operating partner of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, said the addition should be a positive.

“Welcome to the tomato business,” Esformes said. “Pacific Tomato welcomes Del Monte to the tomato industry. Del Monte is a reputable and well-run company. We have a tremendous amount of respect for who they are and what they do.

“We feel their entry into the Florida industry can only help to improve the state’s overall standing as the nation’s No. 1 tomato supplier. I believe they can help the state improve both its image and its operations.”

Tony DiMare, vice president of the Homestead-based DiMare Co., said this isn’t a good time for new entrants into a struggling tomato industry.

“They have a lot of capital because of who they are and will eventually become a major force in our industry,” he said. “The tomato industry is not in the very best shape. Lots of grower-shippers have exited the industry for many reasons but mostly financial.

“To have another major industry player come into the marketplace is a little concerning for the overall welfare of the industry and markets in terms of volume and pricing.”