RUSKIN, Fla. — While overall produce consumption remains on the upswing, the recession has hurt tomato sales.

Grower-shippers say purchases of their products have been harmed by consumers who more carefully spend their money and remain more sensitive to retail prices when they shop than they had in the past.

Tomatoes face consumption challenges

Doug Ohlemeier

Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., inspects grape tomatoes running the grading line in early November.

Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, and other growers lamented the low opening season prices in late October and early November that had mature-greens selling for $9.95 for 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s.

By late November, however, prices increased to $9.95-10.95 for the 5x6s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Esformes said. “We are in the midst of a recession. It’s the economics of the country in an upheaval, especially for customers, the end users of our products. The economy has everything to do with that.

“The biggest issue and the best thing we can do as agricultural producers and the rest of the distribution system is to promote, promote and promote. We have to get value to the consumer. At the end of the day, ads and pricing are what the consumer is looking for.”

Overall tomato consumption remains on the upswing, said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead.

“It has jockeyed around because of all the different types of tomatoes,” he said.

“That’s why I think the category in total has increased in per-capita consumption. Tomatoes will benefit as there is a big push from a lot of different groups, whether it be the first lady or dieticians or nutritionists who encourage people to eat healthy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Consumer purchasing power remains a critical factor driving consumption, said Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry.

“I think a lot of Americans right now are very concerned about the economy,” he said. “But in order to work harder, we need to eat healthier. To be good at our jobs, we have to be healthy. That goes hand in hand.”

Madonia said online access to health information allows consumers to learn more about the healthy foods they should eat such as fresh produce and tomatoes.

Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., remains optimistic about tomatoes taking advantage of increasing fresh produce consumption trends.

“Tomatoes have a role in this push for healthy eating,” he said.

“There are a lot of good things coming out about tomatoes. Groups are doing a lot of advertising on everything that’s good for you. I think it is definitely helping or the deal would be worse than it is.”

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, said mature-greens remain the most trusted and traditional tomato variety.

“Certain items at certain times get a little more sex appeal,” he said. “Ours is a stable staple. People eat tomatoes, thank goodness, because they’re healthy for them. Our tomatoes are usually priced attractively versus some of the other ‘sexier’ items such as tomatoes on-the-vine and clusters.”

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said he sees tomatoes benefiting from interest in healthy and comfort foods.

“I am convinced that we should see a return to volume with Florida tomatoes,” he said.

“Consumption should go back up as the economy gets better. The turn in the economy is giving people a little more money. They’re spending it on things that are good for them.”

Weisinger said Florida tomato growers remain dependent on the economy more than many other grower-shippers.

People don’t have to buy tomatoes and often reduce their purchases if the price of an accompanying item such as lettuce increases, he said.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, called tomato movement stagnant.

“Demand is not as strong as it costs to produce the tomatoes now,” he said.

“The numbers we have are not very viable in the long term.”