PALMETTO, Fla. — With a catastrophic season behind them, Florida tomato grower-shippers were eyeing more normal fall and winter deals.

January’s freeze destroyed crops, and unusually low February and March temperatures kept crops from growing.

The high winter markets hit the basement in May and June after promotable volume began rebounding.

All told, shipping 28 million cartons during the last season, which ended in June, Florida packers shipped 17 million fewer cartons — or 38% less — than 2008-09’s 45 million cartons.

Tomato growers hope to rebound after rough 2009-10 season

Doug Ohlemeier

Workers grade grape tomatoes at Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., in early November.
Grower-shippers say promotable volume isn't expected to start until mid-November.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, which also grows and packs in Ruskin, said high heat that hit last fall also caused some setting problems, bloom drop and drastic yield losses for central Florida production.

While he called Florida’s early fall growing conditions as strong, DiMare said extreme summer and early fall heat harmed East Coast production and caused tight supplies.

DiMare said buyers shouldn’t expect normal tomato supplies until central Florida gets moving with promotable volume by mid-November.

“Look at the USDA’s tomato shipment report,” he said. “Most of those areas year to date are down considerably.”

DiMare said the Quincy northern Florida production area started in late September and early October in a light way with crops that didn’t set well because of the high heat.

“Overall in Florida, we have had a good growing season,” he said in mid-October. “We have had outstanding weather, which has been a little cooler and drier than normal. The weather we have had will be real beneficial to the tomato crops.”

In central Florida, Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. had started packing light volumes of grape tomatoes in early October and planned to begin heavier movement in early November.

The grower-shipper planned to begin mature greens in late October and early November.

Solid crop

Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer, said buyers shouldn’t expect significant volume from central Florida until mid-November.

“The crops look very good,” he said in mid-October. “We expect to have very high quality for the coming season.”

DiMare and 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, characterized early fall prices as fair with demand sluggish.

Odell said California growers experienced a favorable market for a couple of weeks in late summer and early September, but prices backed off.

He said buyers should expect a strong Florida crop.

“We should have a pretty clean and good crop,” Odell said in mid-October. “There isn’t much virus this year and it should be a decent crop.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late October hadn’t started reporting Florida mature green prices, but Esformes in mid-October called movement decent and said central California this season produced an excellent crop.

In late October , the USDA reported 25-pound cartons loose mature greens from California’s central district selling for $5.95-6.95 for extra large, large and mediums.

Last year in mid-October, the USDA reported these prices for 25-pound cartons loose mature-greens from central California: extra-large $15.95, large $13.95, medium $11.95.

Because of insufficient volume, the USDA in late October wasn’t reporting prices for mature greens, romas, grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes from the Quincy or Palmetto-Ruskin growing regions.

Six L’s, which has production in Palmetto, LaBelle, Immokalee, Naples and on the East Coast near Loxahatchee, started its central Florida rounds in mid-October.

Odell said he expected south Florida growers that don’t have central Florida deals to begin Immokalee areas harvesting in early November.

South Florida and Immokalee normally begin shipments in late November.

Odell said he expects this season to see some overlap between California and central Florida production.

As central California normally ends in early November, the coastal vine-ripe deal should have enough tomatoes to run through November, he said.

Because of the large number of tropical storms, Odell said northern and central Mexican growing areas received more rain than normal, which harmed crop quality. He said buyers shouldn’t expect as uniform quality for Texas crossings.