PALMETTO, Fla. — After experiencing one of the worst years on record, Florida tomato grower-shippers opened their new season with lower-than-normal national volume and stronger demand.
Growers began harvesting light volumes of grape and cherry tomatoes in mid-October, and their packing lines began running mature-greens and romas later in the month.
Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said business is good.
“The quality has improved tremendously,” he said. “We have had very few problems out of Florida. I don’t see the volume. A lot of these guys are just getting started.
“It’s not working that prices are going to drop. There’s not enough volume. Even with the problems in the Northeast, demand still seems to be pretty good. The orders have been met, and they seem to have found a price that works. Unless we’re really surprised, $12 for extra-large gassed green tomatoes should be OK. They seem to have a pretty market working.”
In late November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% U.S. 1 or better from central Florida selling for $13.95 for 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s.
In late November, the USDA reported $15.95 for 5x6s and $11.95-13.95 for 6x6s and 6x7s from the west Florida Quincy growing region.
Last season, in mid-November, the USDA reported the same cartons and sizes from central Florida selling for $14.95.
Weisinger said the market should hold steady through early December.
Mexico isn’t producing much volume coming out of its summer roma deal and beginning its fall deal, which is keeping high prices fairly high, he said.
Tony DiMare, vice president of the Homestead-based DiMare Co. and other shippers said lower supplies from the Eastern Shore and California finishing its Central Valley deal helped keep late October and early November prices strong.
DiMare said he expects central Florida volume to build throughout November and increase into higher, promotable volume by late November, as normal.
He said south Florida production, centered in Immokalee, typically begins in late November and early December, with volume increasing by mid-December.
Winter production in Homestead normally starts in early January.
Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., said lower early season national volume helped keep prices above average.
“Some of the crops up north finished a little earlier than normal,” he said. “There wasn’t as much planted late in the northern part. So we had sort of an empty supply chain at the other end. I think a lot of customers were ready to shift over from California, so that made the transition a little easier as they were ready for them.”
California’ production typically ends in early November.
Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said growers opened the new season with steady prices that were higher than last year’s disastrous markets.
“The season started relatively slow-paced and is continuing to build some volume, but not great volume,” he said.
During the 2011-12 season, which ended in June, Florida tomato growers packed 38.1 million 25-pound equivalent cartons of mature-green tomatoes, up from the 36.1 million they packed in 2010-11, Brown said.
The past season, however, produced a $256 million crop, considerably lower than $431 million the previous year, Brown said.
Brown said he isn’t certain how many acres growers planted this year as he said the U.S. Department of Agriculture discontinued an acreage survey.
Most growers, including DiMare, say the industry planted fewer acres.
According to the last USDA figures, Florida growers planted 32,000 acres in 2010-11.
Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. and Plant City-based Santa Sweets Inc., said central Florida grape tomatoes started on a high note.
“They look very nice,” he said. “The little bit of rain had a bit of an effect and helped quality. Overall, it looks to pretty good.”
Michael Lacey, director of sales and marketing for Wimauma-based Tomato Thyme Corp., said Tomato Thyme plans to finish harvesting its north Florida Tasti-Lee round reds and vine-ripes in Jennings in mid-December, after the season’s first freeze.
“The north Florida tomatoes are really nice,” he said. “We anticipate a really nice pick this year from north Florida. And everything looks good and is on-track in central Florida. The weather has been cooperating.”
Lacey said growers were preparing for central Florida and said expected to finish transplanting in late November.