Talk, while usually cheap, can also be an invaluable commodity.

The tomato industries in Canada and the U.S. are finally getting around to realizing that.

And it only took a few million dollars in needless legal expenditures to bring the lesson home.

The two sides, like two punch-drunk fighters, have spent much of the past year pelting each other with legal briefs. Apparently now they realize that civil conversation is far preferable to civil lawsuits. In February, they formed the North American Tomato Trade Work Group in an attempt to pass along recommendations to the U.S.-Canadian Agricultural Bilateral group that represents the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Expect Mexico to join them sometime soon.

Could it be that the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement is actually taking on some flesh?

“I just think that it’s pretty much indicative of the tomato industry at large in that it’s not just a Canadian, American and Mexican thing,” said Jay Colasanti, co-owner of Red Zoo/Performance Produce, a Ruthven, Ontario-based greenhouse vegetable producer and marketing agent. “It’s the industry at large that’s somewhat the Achilles’ heel of all of us.”

Hence, the formation of the work group.

“The group met to find inroads to the salvation of the tomato industry,” Colasanti said.

Already the work group has decided to address, and possibly upgrade, systems used to monitor the volumes of tomatoes that cross borders and to confront pricing issues and other numbers-related matters. The group seems to want to settle on a narrower definition of greenhouse tomatoes and better-harmonized quality standards.

It’s a good start, although the end of the bickering is hardly more than an idea at this point. Indeed, the fact that the Canadian anti-dumping lawsuit against U.S. producers has reached its next stage, with the announcement of provisional duties against alleged offenders, is a sure signal of a business-as-usual pose.

“It’s somewhat ironic that the (announcement of) preliminary duties comes less than a week after a productive meeting between the U.S. and Canadian industries in Washington, where we found common ground on numerous issues,” said Ed Beckman, president of the Fresno-based California Tomato Commission. “As all have noted, once litigation begins, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to halt.”

This is a crucial time of year for tomato producers in various regions, so it is all the more important to find some sort of mutual understanding among them.

“The real competition comes in the overlapping periods,” said Larry Gianatti, president and chief executive officer of Quality Sales Inc., a Hartford, Conn.-based wholesale operation that purchases products from Canada, Mexico and Europe, as well as the U.S. “In April, as an example, you have the overlapping of your winter producers, like Spanish product, which goes out of production in May, and Mexico, which is on the same schedule. It’s then that the new people in Canada and Holland are coming into full production. Then, you have lower California starting to come in and the whole state of Florida coming in. So you have a lot of field production.”

And, he added, there’s a market for all of them because each growing region has its peak season.

Imposition of duties likely would cut into sales from some important Canadian sources, Gianatti said.

“I couldn’t buy from them,” he said. “They’d go direct to my customers. ... There are times in the summer when the U.S. greenhouse companies don’t have anywhere near the product of Holland or Canadian product. There’s too much heat, and the greenhouses can’t handle it.”

Gianatti said he made that point to investigators with the U.S. International Trade Commission, who have been wrestling with the anti-dumping action filed in March 2001 by six U.S. greenhouse producers against their Canadian rivals.

“They were asking how I compared greenhouse product in the U.S. against the Mexican product and against a Canadian product,” Gianatti said. “I told them that you have to compare it by times of the year. For example, at certain times, the U.S. product is quite good. Some of the Mexican product is good. I’m also receiving product from Spain and Israel that is good. In May, Holland or the Canadian product is probably some of the best available.”

In any court action, there are winners and losers. As long as the U.S. and Canadian tomato industries insist on fighting their turf wars in front of judges, the only losers will be consumers.

Perhaps the saddest thing about this mess is that everyone on both sides seems to realize that.