Although a December freeze started the 2010-11 Florida tomato season off on rocky footing, western Mexico experienced an even more severe cold snap, removing much of the competition from the market.

“It turned the market upside down for the industry,” says Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee.

In the end, Florida tomato growers harvested 36.1 million 25-pound box equivalents during the 2010-11 season compared with 27.9 million boxes during 2009-10. That was the season the industry was hit with a record prolonged freeze in early January, Brown told attendees of the Florida Joint Tomato Conference in Naples.

Much of the production shortfall during 2009-10 was made up by a 29-percent increase in field-grown tomatoes from Mexico.

The value of tomatoes picked and shipped under the federal marketing order last season was $431 million compared to $402 during 2009-10 and $382 million during 2008-09.

Even last year, imports of greenhouse-grown tomatoes mostly from Mexico and Canada rose by 12 percent.

Increasing greenhouse competition is one of many challenges—or as Brown says some prefer to call them, opportunities—facing the industry.

Another is the continuing increase in Florida production costs, he says.

Last year’s production average of 1,400 boxes per acre was cut short by about 200 boxes per acre by weather.

And those 200 boxes can make a big difference, Brown says.

“The game is unit cost,” he says. “We need to manage our cost on the production side and maximize our yields and minimize our unit costs to make us aggressive, strong, viable and competitive going forward.”

Other challenges facing the industry include labor availability, looming E-verify legislation and having methyl bromide available for rescue applications when other alternatives fail, Brown says.