IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Prices are increasing as the extent of damage to Florida’s tomato crop becomes better known.
Grower-shippers have suspended pickings as the arctic temperatures damaged plants and warn buyers to prepare for news of lots of damage, shorter supplies and higher prices.
Subfreezing temperatures that struck south Florida’s tomato fields during the early morning hours of Jan. 12 have apparently destroyed a significant portion of the state’s winter tomato crop in the Immokalee area.
Some growers estimate up to 60% of the tomato crop has been lost, including Plant City-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc.
Grower-shippers spent Jan. 13 updating their customers about what they should expect.
“It’s going to be rough,” one salesman said.
Citing insufficient supplies to establish a market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t report Florida tomato prices on Jan. 13.
Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, quoted $23.95 for 25-pound cartons of extra-large rounds and $21.95 for cartons of large rounds, up from $16.95 a carton before the freezing weather struck Jan. 4.
Weisinger said he expects Florida to have only a handful of tomatoes.
“Anything from Immokalee north looks like it is just a done deal,” he said Jan. 13. “I have a feeling that a lot of this that was grown by some of the Naples growers for the winter is also done. Any plants that had been open, that had been picked at least once and didn’t have the leaf protection, were destroyed. It’s going to be a horse race for the next two months until spring starts.”
Weisinger said temperatures in the Immokalee area fell to 27 degrees and remained there for up to six hours during the early morning hours of Jan. 11. It was so cold for so long that the frost protection systems failed.
Though he hadn’t talked with Homestead growers, Weisinger said he heard there might be a small number of fields on the East Coast that escaped freeze damage.
Much of south Florida’s sweet corn, green beans, bell peppers and squash have been damaged as well.
Skip Jonas, field compliance officer for the Florida Tomato Committee, Maitland, said on Jan. 13 he thinks it would take several days before the industry will have a full report of the extent of the damage.
After a freeze, the fruit takes a while to show how much damage it has received, he said.