PALMETTO, Fla. — Florida tomato prices continued to skyrocket as lighter yields characterize this fall’s Florida tomato deal.
 
Grower-shippers say supplies are expected to remain well below normal through mid- to late December.
 
Because volume in mid- to late November was lower, shippers said they expected prices to remain higher than normal.

Tony DiMare, vice president of the Homestead-based DiMare Co., which has operations in Palmetto-Ruskin, said the deal started early but was slow in gaining volume.

Florida tomato season brings low volume, high prices

Doug Ohlemeier

Workers grade mature green tomatoes running the packing line in late October at Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC, Palmetto, Fla. Lower than expected yields have caused prices to skyrocket.

DiMare said high winds associated with the Tropical Storm Ida, which rolled through the Gulf of Mexico along Florida’s Gulf Coast Nov. 6-9 before making landfall near Mobile, Ala., damaged blooms on late plantings in the Palmetto-Ruskin growing region.

“The later plantings are in excellent condition quality wise, but are with extremely light fruit set and below-average fruit size due to the well above-average day and nighttime temperatures,” he said Nov. 18.  “We will have very light supplies throughout the remainder of the Palmetto-Ruskin season. It has been one thing after another for this fall season.”

Shorter volume

Combined with bloom drop after severe fall heat, DiMare estimates central Florida mid-November fall tomato volume was down up to 50% from normal.

Buyers should expect more normal yields Dec. 10-15, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers.

“We are going to see a really crazy market,” he said in mid-November. “In the past, I have seen a kind of a slump between Thanksgiving and Christmas on tomatoes. This year could be a whole other story. It’s a really odd situation that has hit us. What a mess.”

During a normal fall season, Florida growers pack around 2,200 boxes to the net acre. This year’s packouts, however, could be as little as 1,000 boxes, Weisinger said.

Prices in early October started off at $16 for the large mature greens. Then dropped to $12.

They rose again, however, when buyers discovered volume wasn’t as plentiful as they had believed, said Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc.

“Then boom, all the sudden they realized at the other end that we weren’t lying to them when we told them there wasn’t much (tomatoes) in Florida, when they tried to buy tomatoes and couldn’t buy them,” Spencer said in early November. “Demand was bigger than supply so we did the all-American thing and raised the markets.”

Variable prices

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late November reported 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better from central Florida selling for $26.95 for 5x6s, $25.95 for 6x6s and $24.95 for 6x7s, jumping from $17.95 for 5x6s, $15.95 for 6x6s and $13.95 for 6x7s earlier in the month.

Shippers in mid-November said they were seeing prices as high as $31.95 for the extra-large mature greens, with larges going for $29.95 and mediums $27.95.

Last year in early November from central Florida, the USDA reported 5x6s selling for $19.95; 6x6s, $18.95; and 6x7s, $17.95.

On cherry tomatoes from central Florida, the USDA in late November reported $15.95-16.95 for flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids.

Last year, in early to mid-November from central Florida, the USDA reported flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids sold for $16.95-17.95; 20-pound cartons of loose grapes sold for $32.95-33.95.

For grape tomatoes from central Florida, flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids marketed for mostly $18.95; 20-pound cartons of loose grapes sold for $34.95-35.95, up from $13.95 and $23.95-25.95 for respective flats and bulk earlier in the month.

Last year, the USDA reported the pints in mid-November selling for $16.95-17.95 with cartons at $32.95-33.95.

Romas from central Florida sold for $17.95 for 25-pound cartons for extra large and large selling for $17.95 and mediums selling for $15.95.

In early November, those same sizes sold for $15.95 for extra large, $14.95 for large and $12.95 for mediums.

In mid-November last year, central Florida romas sold for $16.95-17.95 for extra large, $15.95-16.95 for large, and $14.95-15.95 for mediums.

High quality

East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Plant City, which also grows in Virginia, wrapped up its Eastern Shore production in late October and started its romas in light volume in late October.

“The crop is on-time, but the yield isn’t what we would like to have,” said Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations.

Grower-shippers called quality high.

“The quality of the produce has been excellent,” said Ed Angrisani, partner with Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC. “The first plantings that have gone through this unusual heat have been light crops. As we go further into some more reasonable cooling weather, the crops should become more normal.”

Florida growers planted fewer acres this season.

According to the USDA, plantings for fall harvest were reported at 7,300 acres, down 2.6% from last fall’s 7,500 harvested.

Fewer acres

Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of the Immokalee-based Lipman Family Cos., which owns tomato and vegetable grower-shipper Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. and produce distributor Custom Pak, said acreage is down a little but somewhere closer to two years ago, which had 7,400 fall acres.

“That is consistent with what has been happening as acreage during the last few years has been going down,” Lipman said. “It has been harder to make money. I believe Florida is slowly downsizing. The tendency is slowly coming down. Acreage needs to adjust so farmers can make money.”

According to the Florida Tomato Exchange, Florida growers packed 47 million 25-pound boxes during the 2008-09 season, up from 45 million boxes in 2007-08.

Prices averaged $8.13 a box compared to $13.71 for 2007-08.

Northern Florida production in Quincy begins in October and normally runs through mid- to late November.

Central Florida volume normally runs through Christmas while south Florida volume in Immokalee typically begins light shipments in early and mid-November with volume hitting in early December.

Homestead production usually starts after Christmas with promotable volume hitting Jan. 1.
According to the tomato exchange, Florida’s tomatoes account for 95% of all U.S.-grown tomatoes eaten by Americans October through June.