Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

We decided to grow cherry tomatoes in our garden this year.

They fared better than the watermelons and corn, but that’s not saying much, since the latter two were total disasters.

We did get a few good salads’ worth out of our inaugural crop, but the squirrels or birds or maybe the foxes that moved into the neighborhood this summer had more than their share.

This is all a long of way saying that our tomato “crop” was possibly the only one in the entire U.S. not to thrive this summer — much to the bemusement of many of the big-league grower-shippers I’ve talked to recently.

In early September, Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc., told me that while prospects for long-sluggish markets were looking good, that outlook was tempered by the fact that even though most kids had gone back to school, 36 U.S. states were still producing.

Then he corrected himself: actually, “only” 35 states were still producing — the start of the Quincy (Florida) deal was still two weeks away.

I admire that Weisinger’s sense of humor survived the summer of 2014 intact. Some shippers told me it was one of the most challenging marketing environments in decades.

Shippers like Gary Margolis, president of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., whose Benton Harbor, Mich., crop was hit hard by the glut of locally grown product this summer.

“I’ve been promoting local my whole life, but I’m thinking now that we may have shot ourselves in the foot. Michelle Obama asked us to grow gardens, and I believe everyone did.”

Many Illinois retailers, for instance, demanded what Margolis calls an “Illinois face” on their summer tomatoes. They wanted them to come from a grower within the Illinois state limits. Same goes for Indiana and other Midwestern states that used to be loyal customers of the Benton Harbor deal.

“We’re 90 miles from Chicago, but we might as well be 900,” Margolis said.

And if there’s excellent weather nationwide like there was this summer, and growers boost acreage chasing high prices of recent years, gluts are bound to happen, Margolis said.

Then there’s what he and other big shippers throughout the produce industry call an uneven playing field when it comes to food safety.

“While the local guys are shipping under the food safety radar, our guys are swabbing their warehouses with toothbrushes,” Margolis said. “We have to jump through all these hoops, and they come in through the back door.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take a food safety outbreak for the industry and the government to bring some more order to “local.”

anelson@thepacker.com

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.