PALMETTO, Fla. — Recovering from a disastrous season that saw their crops devastated by freezing weather, Florida tomato growers are looking to a more typical fall and winter.

After the January freeze, low February and March temperatures kept crops from growing and caused markets to crash after promotable volume hit too late in the season.

Florida tomato growers eye more normal season

Doug Ohlemeier

Terry Harris (left), salesman for West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., and Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager, display some roma tomatoes in early November.
Spencer says buyers should expect Florida this season to produce strong but not bumper crops and that growers are expecting to produce more typical fall crops.

Grower-shippers say this year’s Florida tomato deal should bring regular crops.

Though growers begin harvesting in October, volume builds through November, hitting promotable levels around Thanksgiving, with gigantic volume normally starting in December when Immokalee begins its early winter deal and joins central Florida’s production, which usually finishes after Christmas.

West Coast Tomato Inc. began packing rounds and romas in late October.

“We have pretty good crops,” Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager, said in late November.

“They’re not bumper crops, but more typical fall crops. We haven’t had a lot of rain, so there’s less bacterial stress on the crop.”

Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., said the growing season has been positive.

“We have had outstanding weather since early November,” he said in late November.

“The quality of the grape and round tomatoes is fantastic. The round tomatoes coming out of Palmetto are as good as any round tomatoes I have ever seen in the fall of the year.”

In late November, Pacific had started harvesting limited volume from its Immokalee-area fields and Esformes said the company planned a smooth transition from central Florida to south Florida production during the first half of December.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, said central Florida fall fruit quality is high. He said sizings have been strong, yields respectable and that a drier than normal fall has produced excellent mid-season and late season tomatoes.

Grape tomatoes were coming in very clean, he said in late November.

DiMare, however, said the industry’s mood is anything but optimistic.

“There is a lot of pessimism and skepticism versus last year,” he said.

“I sense it in all of agriculture. A lot of people are reeling. The tomato industry is in very tough shape. The freezes last year probably set us back as an industry five years.”

DiMare and other shippers called early fall demand sluggish and said the $9.95 quoted in late October and early November for 25-pound cartons of 5x6s of mature-green tomatoes disappointing.

Prices are generally low between Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of buying broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers.

“Historically, markets have been very flat then,” he said.

“But this year with Mexico being late and a lot of other areas being out of business, maybe we will surprise ourselves and see a little better movement than we have in the past.

“We need movement because the product needs to move, then the markets get better. If we can only sell as far as the Mississippi River, we will have a flat market until Christmas. But if we can sell the whole country, we should have a good market.”

Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, said buyers should expect a strong year.

“This is probably the best quality crop I have seen in quite a while,” he said.

South Florida grower-shippers echo those sentiments.

“This is our best-looking crop we have had in the fall,” said Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc.

“The fall crops are as clean as I have seen them in our area. Our fruit is very, very clean.”

J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc., Plant City, and COO of Procacci Bros. Sales Inc., Philadelphia, remains optimistic about the season.

“This is more than a typical season,” he said. “It’s better than average. We haven’t had these good growing conditions in a long time.”

Santa Sweets grows grape tomatoes, mature-greens and heirloom tomatoes such as its Ugly Ripes in Balm and Wimauma.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said growers always remain optimistic.

“We are always hoping for the best,” he said.

“After the experience we had last year, we don’t have any choice but to hope for a significantly better season. We hope last year’s disaster is a once in a lifetime experience.”

Florida growers last season shipped 28 million cartons of mature-green tomatoes, 38% fewer cartons than the 45 million cartons they shipped during the 2008-09 season, according to the tomato committee.