A smaller Florida tomato crop in the 2011-12 season requires increasing the assessment rate established the Florida Tomato Committee by almost a penny per carton, according to a proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The increase is open for comments through April 25 and would raise the Florida Tomato Committee assessment rate from the 2.75 cents per 25-pound carton to 3.7 cents per carton.

The committee administers the marketing order that regulates the handling of tomatoes grown in Florida, and assessments are used to fund expenses of the program.

The Florida Tomato Committee estimated last fall that the 2011-12 crop would reach approximately 35 million 25-pound cartons. That projection is down sharply from the 45 million cartons estimated for last year but up from the 27 million cartons actually shipped during the 2010-11 season.

The current assessment, based on a crop of 35 million cartons, would amount to $962,500. That is far short of the Florida Tomato Committee’s anticipated expenditures of nearly $1.5 million for the fiscal year.

Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, Maitland, said the committee had unanimously recommended the increase in August. Brown said he isn’t sure why the USDA was so late in publishing the proposed rule.

Brown said weather problems last year hurt production and limited output to 27 million cartons.

“Last year was the first time the committee actually didn’t make a budget number,” he said.

This year, weather has been good but tomato markets have been poor, Brown said.

Total Florida tomato shipments for 2011-12 are still projected between 35 million to 40 million cartons, Brown said April 10. This season’s poor market conditions for tomatoes may cause growers to pull acreage back even more during the 2012-13 season, Brown said.

“You can’t continue to go through life losing dollars,” he said.

Major expenses recommended by the committee for 2011-12 included $575,000 for education and promotion, $436,372 for salaries, $250,000 for research and $64,000 for office space.

According to the proposed rule, there are about 100 Florida tomato growers, with about 80 handlers subject to the marketing order. About 20% of the handlers market 90% of the total volume shipped, according to the committee.