PALMETTO, Fla. — After a disastrous 2009-10 season, Florida grower-shippers this fall say they’re ready for better deals. The prospect of fewer acres could also help strengthen prices, sources say.

Though most grower-shippers said the fall of 2009 produced strong crops, freezes that struck in January destroyed many crops such as tomatoes and bell peppers.

Growers await better season with favorable weather and lower acreage

Doug Ohlemeier

Gene Barnett, south Florida operations manager of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.’s Immokalee, Fla. packing shed, looks at some bell pepper in late September.
L&M grows pepper in north and south Florida and plans to start harvesting near Gainesville by late October and start its Immokalee area harvesting in early November.

Shortages ran through spring when production hit at once and crashed markets as growing areas entered on top of other deals.

Less acreage for some
Jeff Williams, president of Wm. P. Hearne Produce Co. LLC, Wimauma, said the state’s growers are talking about less planted acreage.

“The general consensus is there will be less volume down here this year, which will hopefully make what product we have worth it,” he said. “Are costs in it are a little more. Everyone in the industry, whatever the extent you’re in, needs to have a good season. This has to be a good season for us because we’re all coming off a bad season. It will be a critical season for a lot of us.”

Williams said many of the growers and companies remain unstable because of last year’s devastating experience some had never witnessed in their lifetimes.

He said the industry needs a strong rebound, but not necessarily a great one, to just get over “the disaster that was last season.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida planted 18% fewer tomato, 12% fewer cabbage and 2% fewer corn acres for fall production compared to fall 2009.

Bell pepper and green bean plantings were up 11% while cucumber plantings increased 6% from the previous year.

Overall, Florida’s 31,200 acres for the fall remain unchanged versus last fall, according to the USDA.

Growers optimistic
Frank Pero, corporate executive vice president of Pero Family Farms, Delray Beach, said south Florida so far has escaped hurricanes or other threatening early fall weather and said growers are showing more enthusiasm this season.

“We are positive and everyone is positive,” Pero said in late October. “Our foundations have been going well. It’s been built and should carry us through as we haven’t had any planting interruptions. The weather has been perfect and we have had good growing conditions.”

Pero said Pero Family Farms began harvesting bell peppers and green beans on Oct. 17.

Pero’s acreage remains similar to last season, he said.

Brian Rayfield, vice president of sales and marketing for J&J Produce, Loxahatchee, said it’s time for a better season.

“We had a very good fall last year. It went well,” he said. “We were off to a great start. This year, I think everyone is looking for an exceptional season of high-quality product.”

Rayfield in late October said Florida’s crops have been growing well and that the crops look strong.

He said retailers should expect ample supplies for the Thanksgiving pull and that buyers should expect a small overlap between the ending of south Georgia harvesting and the start of Florida’s production in early November.

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., said he thinks this will be a different kind of fall season for Florida.

“I just think this year will be unique for certain items like cucumbers and squash as production is down in Florida,” he said. “There will be less acres planted. Specifically in central Florida, where a lot of producers aren’t growing this year. That will cause the markets to be firmer.”

Grower-shippers report favorable early fall quality.

“The conditions of the crops are better than they have been the last couple of years,” 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.

Florida grows a variety of fresh produce items during the fall and winter, including bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, sweet corn, green beans, cabbage, eggplant, lettuce and tomatoes.

On tomatoes, the Homestead-based DiMare Co. had started shipping light volumes of grape tomatoes from central Florida in early October with steady supplies of grapes and cherries expected to hit by early November.

DiMare planned to begin shipping mature greens in late October and early November with romas following, said Tony DiMare, vice president.

“Overall, our fall growing weather has been good and the crops are in very good condition,” he said in mid-October.

That’s opposite of last year when severe heat harmed fall crops and January freezes destroyed most of the state’s tomato crop.

As the winter begins, the southern half of Florida produces oranges, grapefruit and tangerines.

Though a fraction of the state’s overall citrus crop ships fresh, most tangerines and navel oranges ship fresh and nearly half of the state’s grapefruit go to fresh channels.

Blasted by arctic air during winter freezes that delayed their production, strawberry growers in the central part of the state are hopeful they won’t have to experience what they underwent last season.

Strawberry harvesting normally begins in earnest in early to mid-December.

The far southern part of the state grows avocados and fall tropicals such as boniato and star fruit.