As most of Florida’s tomato harvesting has been winding down with production shifting to the Mid-Atlantic states and the start of the various smaller summertime deals, the difficulties tomato marketers experienced this spring left a bitter taste in their mouths.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

Grower-shippers invest millions making sure their crops mature and are ready for sale at retail.

Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Plant City, Fla., is visibly disappointed with the support his operation received from retailers after a flush of tomatoes finally started refilling packinghouses after unfavorable winter and spring growing conditions.

He was selling large mature-green tomatoes for $3 a box plus the industry’s $1.95 handling charge.

Madonia said growers felt betrayed by retail marketers who did not stand by them when the growing end experienced oversupply and price problems.

“I don’t know what it costs to take the tomatoes off a truck and put them on the shelf, but it costs growers a lot more to do all the work and get them to the consumers,” he said.

“We do believe everyone is entitled to a fair profit margin, but when we lose $3-4 for every box we pack and retail prices don’t change, we have a dysfunctional system that can only be changed with the consumer.”

Like other growers, Stephen Madonia Sr., Batista Madonia’s brother and vice president of operations who oversees growing operations, missed many nights of sleep trying to salvage product for the operation’s customers.

“We stayed out all night when we had freezes, night after night, making sure we had supplies,” Batista Madonia said.

“But when we have a crop to sell, we don’t get support from retail. If we cannot survive, we will be dependent upon other countries to feed us like we are with oil, TVs and washers and dryers. The one thing we need to be able to have is a food source made in America.”

Because of the effort they put into producing their crops, growers say they don’t want to receive bottom-market prices when supplies return to normal.

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., said the sudden plunge in prices sellers endured this season wasn’t normal.

“We are getting more wild swings in the tomato business than I have ever seen,” he said.

“This is becoming more like the vegetable business where we get those large swings, like in the stock market. Receivers have to watch what they’re doing even more than what they have done in the past, and have to work with people that will help them out.”

On one morning, Weisinger said prices for the highest grade extra-large 5x6 tomatoes dropped from $19.95 to $13.95 within three hours, a steep fall from prices that aren’t normally that high.

A grower-shipper of other vegetables told me they all sell to the same customers and that what happened to Florida tomato growers wasn’t any different than what the cabbage deal experienced when a delayed deal plunged prices after the St. Paddy’s Day push.

In mid-June, tomato prices began to stabilize and increased a little to $7.95 for 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s but then declined to $6.95 for those same sizes later in the month.

The weather set the terms for marketing crops this year, and in 45 years in the tomato business, Weisinger said this season has shown him he understands less than what he has ever known.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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