By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

NAPLES, Fla. -- Sustaining a second year of falling tomato production value, Florida's tomato leaders met Sept. 4-7 to discuss challenges in keeping their industry profitable.

The Joint Tomato Conference, which included members of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee, Florida Tomato Exchange and Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, also heard about the industry's new marketing program and more on industry issues such as the farm bill.

The committee reconfigured its marketing programs by starting them earlier than in the past and by putting most of its muscle behind a retail-based promotion involving cable's Food Network and a mass-market book retailer.

Leveraging the consumer appeal of celebrity chefs and the popularity of cooking, the committee plans to run a series of commercials to drive consumers to the tomato section of supermarket produce departments. Through point of sale material, after buying fresh Florida tomatoes consumers will receive coupons for 25% off the TV Food Network's "Food Network Favorites" cookbook. The coupons will be valid at Borders, Waldenbooks and Borders Express stores.

The committee normally focuses its tomato promotions in early spring. This season, the promotions will attract consumers during the winter starting Dec. 17, when a series of TV commercials is also scheduled to being airing.

"Our partners are extremely heavy-hitters," said Samantha Winters, the committee's director of education and promotion. "These are huge partnerships. No one (else) has similar programs. It's unprecedented. The TV Food Network is a monster. The breadth of that network is amazing."

One new TV commercial will promote the cookbook tie-in, while the committee uses two of the 15-second commercials promoting Florida tomatoes' health and taste benefits that it has used in campaigns since 2005. The TV spots, scheduled to run from December through mid-May, are expected to make 60 million consumer impressions, Winters said.

The program also has the committee sending merchandising representatives to retail stores starting in October; usage of retail signage, posters and a national retail display contest; and it involves repackers.

In his yearly state of the industry report, Reggie Brown, committee manager and Florida Tomato Exchange executive vice president, lamented the low prices tomato growers and shippers received during the 2006-07 season.

The industry, he said, suffered a drop of $200 million from 2004-05 to 2006-07. Prices for 25-pound boxes of round tomatoes ranged from a maximum weekly high of $16.05 to a minimum weekly average value of $3.89 a box.

"It's been a tough year for the business. It's been brutal," Brown said. "It was not a season we wish to experience again. If anyone thinks they can make a living on $3.89, I would like to hear from you. I don't think those numbers work anymore in today's world and today's reality. With the eternal optimism of this industry, we will hopefully move forward to a better season this year with more profitability."

During the yearly Florida tomato institute grower educational sessions, consultant Martha Roberts, with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, discussed the industry's proactive food safety efforts.

She said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson secured $258,000 in federal specialty crop funds to help educate Florida tomato growers and packinghouse workers about the new food safety requirements that the state's industry in May persuaded its lawmakers to make mandatory.

"This is a pivotal year for you," Roberts said. "Not only in the markets (low prices), but we're mostly concerned and want you to be prepared for the federal attention, and it will be all year. The best thing to do is to prepare and meet all the requirements."

The food safety requirements take effect in mid-October, when Florida?s tomato packing typically begins.