Low Florida tomato volume expected to run through mid-April

03/01/2010 12:11:26 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

(UPDATED COVERAGE, March 4) A large gap in Florida tomatoes production has tomato buyers scrambling for product.


Doug Ohlemeier

Tomatoes run on the packing line at the DiMare Co., in Homestead, Fla., in mid-February. Grower-shippers say Homestead is one of the few areas supplying Florida tomatoes and that buyers should expect a large gap in Florida mature green packings until early to mid-April.


Prices in late February escalated into the $30s for mature greens and as high as $50 for grape tomatoes, and grower-shippers say buyers shouldn’t expect any appreciable volume until early to mid-April.

Cold and rainy weather since the Jan. 10-11 freeze that gutted Immokalee, Fla.-area plantings has prevented south Florida production from returning to normal volume.

“No one has any tomatoes, so the price is insignificant,” said Ed Angrisani, partner with Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC, Palmetto, Fla. “Florida is packing like 20,000 (cartons) a day or like that. It’s just not enough to do anyone any good.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in late February light supplies of south Florida mature greens and insufficient volume of cherries and roma tomatoes to establish a market.
 
Grower-shippers and the USDA reported 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% U.S. No. One or better from south Florida selling for $31.95 for 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s, up from $21.95-23.95 for those same sizes in mid-February.

For grape tomatoes, the USDA reported $25.95-26.95 for flats of 12 1-pint baskets with 20-pound cartons of loose grapes selling for $50.95-51.95, considerably higher than the $16.95 for clamshells and $31.95 for cartons in mid-February.

Fort Myers, Fla.-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc. brokerage has been receiving many requests for Florida tomatoes.

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer, said foodservice suppliers are struggling for product.

“My phone is filled with people requesting tomatoes,” he said March 1. “We cannot supply our own clientele. We are in a critical situation for supplies now. Anything that looks like a tomato is going to sell.”

While DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., has limited supplies in Homestead, and most other packers had sporadic volumes, Weisinger said.

Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Lipman Family Cos., Immokalee, said he doesn’t expect Florida to return to normal volumes until early April.

He said he expects Mexican tomatoes to play out before Florida returns with any kind of volume.

Odell said Mexico’s production of field-grown mature greens is light and shipments should wind down by April 1, but strong shipments of romas should continue throughout most of the year.

While central Florida pickings normally start in mid-April, Odell said January planting delays should prevent the Palmetto-Ruskin region from having any volume until early May.

Any volume before that will have to come from south Florida, Odell said.
 
“Typically, March is a hard month to have a lot of tomatoes in Florida,” he said March 1. “In an average year, if you have iffy weather in January or early February that hurts your fruit set. It will be tough to have volume in March and it will be even tougher this year.”

Nighttime temperatures have consistently fallen into the low 40s and upper 30s — below the limit for fruit set. Tomatoes planted before the freeze, which normally would be harvested in early March, haven’t fully developed because of the cold, Odell said.

Odell said Florida shippers have been sending only 10-11 truckloads a day to out-of-state customers. Six L’s, which markets tomatoes packed by the Lipman Family Cos., doesn’t plan to ship any mature greens until around March 5.

Joe Pawlak, senior principal of Technomic Inc., Chicago, said he’s hearing a lot in the quick-service industry about the shortages.

“We are seeing many chains have signs saying they’ll provide tomatoes only if requested, or for a specific item ordered that would typically have tomatoes,” he said. “Some operators are moving away from tomatoes in the short term. Instead of offering a house salad with tomatoes, they may emphasize Caesar salads that typically don’t have tomatoes.”

Pawlak, a food industry consultant, said he’s seen similar actions in the past when other commodities such as lettuce ran short and forced restaurant operators to make adjustments to their menus.




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