(Oct. 8) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The floor price of Mexican tomatoes is going up, but, it appears, not to the liking of many producers on either side of the border.

On Oct. 2, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued an order to raise the minimum price at which U.S. importers must sell fresh Mexican tomatoes from 21.08 cents per pound to 21.69 cents per pound effective Nov. 1.

PUSHING FOR MORE

In Florida, where producers were pushing for a steeper increase, the move seemed to fall far short of their goal.

“We were a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t more of a realistic increase, in light of the fact that it was seven or eight years that it hadn’t changed,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Orlando-based Florida Tomato Exchange.

Florida growers, Brown said, had sought an increase of at least 4 cents per pound.

Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Fresh Tomato Growers Exchange said that universal compliance with the existing agreement, which had been in place since December 2000, is the priority.

“The problem we have right now is, there were promises that were made that virtually you’d be looking at 100% participation out of Mexico, and they haven’t delivered that,” he said.

Compliance and circumvention were major issues in structuring a new suspension agreement in December, Beckman said.

UNTESTED

California growers have benefitted from a strong tomato market, which has minimized any potential stress on the current suspension agreement, Beckman said.

“The one thing we can say that we’ve all been very fortunate in is, the suspension agreement has not been tested, really, since it went into play,” he said. “In the tomato market, California had the best year in its history. So, like any other grower, when you’re facing good times some of the problems that maybe we should be focusing on we don’t focus on.”

TOO MUCH

Indeed, said Lee Frankel, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the strong market rendered a change in the suspension agreement unnecessary.

“I strongly disagree with the decision by the Department of Commerce to raise the reference price,” Frankel said. “U.S. Department of Agricutlure data show that prices received by U.S. growers have increased significantly since the signing of the December 2002 suspension agreement.”

Frankel blames political concerns, not market forces, for the change.

Mexican producers, meanwhile, said they reluctantly agreed to the increase.

“We do not believe that an increase is justified, but we agreed to the increase to accommodate the (Department of Commerce) and to preserve this agreement that has been a great benefit to growers on both sides of the border,” Sergio Esquer, president of the Culiacan, Mexico-based Comision de la Investigacion y Defensa de Hortalizas, said in a news release. “I sincerely hope that our acceptance of the demands put forth by the U.S. tomato industry doesn’t jeopardize the new mechanisms put in place by the government of Mexico to ensure full participation of all Mexican exporters.”