MULBERRY, Fla. — East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., one of Florida’s largest tomato grower-shippers, has stopped growing and shipping Florida tomatoes, owing creditors millions.
Court records show East Coast’s owners owe more than $15 million in liens and judgments to state and federal governments and crop production services. There also is a $5.6 million lien from Chicago wholesaler Anthony Marano Co.
Batista Madonia Jr., East Coast’s vice president of sales and operations, declined to comment.
A woman answering East Coast’s telephone on Nov. 14 said the company remains in operation but wasn’t shipping tomatoes.
In early October, Madonia told The Packer the company was preparing for Florida fall production but said he couldn’t go into specifics.
“We are in negotiations,” he said Oct. 4. “I can’t say we’re definitely not out of the tomato business. Our last harvesting was the spring. We didn’t go to Virginia this year. We took a season off to try to look at things. I will say the news of my demise is being greatly over-exaggerated.”
Two other Florida tomato growers have also stopped production.
Last spring, Immokalee-based Nobles-Collier Inc., stopped producing tomatoes and Palmetto-based Woody’s Tomato Corp., ceased operations.
Leading Florida tomato grower-shippers say East Coast didn’t plant any tomatoes for the season after exiting the summer Eastern Shore deal in Virginia.
“No one’s working there, they’re gone,” said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers. “They haven’t had a box of tomatoes (this season). They left part of their spring crop in the field. At one point, they were the largest player here.”
East Coast previously planted 1,500 Florida acres.
Batista Madonia Sr., president and chief executive officer, and his wife Evelyn Madonia, founded the company in 1956.
Batista Madonia Jr. said the family wanted to take a step back and take care of family issues after his sister Laurie’s death in April. She was a pharmaceutical and hospital executive.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said it isn’t surprising some companies left the business.
“It’s obvious the deal has been rather tough for a couple of seasons,” he said. “That’s certainly manifesting itself by those long-term companies that appear to be exiting the business.
“It’s not just one bad year,” Brown said. “The year before last was not that great either. There has been a series of years here to where the deal has been less than ideal.”
Nobles-Collier grew, packed and shipped about 2 million boxes of mature greens and roma tomatoes a year, according to the website of parent company Naples-based Barron Collier Cos.