It will be a long time before grower-shippers with tomato operations in Mexico forget the winter of 2010-11.
No one could recall such an extensive freeze for Mexico, which heretofore had been a reliable source of winter tomatoes for U.S. consumers.
The industry still was reeling from the lack of supplies that were just starting build up again as the Baja season got under way in May.
“This last winter was a winter like I’ve never seen before,” said Tim Biggar, salesman for the Escondido, Calif., location of Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Co.
Temperatures were lower than they had been for three or four decades in some regions and perhaps the lowest temperatures ever recorded in some areas, he said.
Growers were taken aback.
“The thing about produce,” he said, “is that a farmer can do everything right (and) then the weather can come along and wreck him.”
Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, had the same reaction.
“None of us had really ever seen a situation like this,” he said.
The freeze in the Culiacan area was unprecedented, he said, adding that unusual weather these days seem to be almost the norm.
“The headlines today are full of reports of unprecedented weather,” he said.
On the foodservice side, some restaurants adjusted their menus because tomatoes were in short supply and product that was available was pricey.
Retailers raised prices and cut back shelf space, creating less demand for tomatoes.
“That’s what needed to happen,” said Joe Bernardi, president of Nogales, Ariz.-based Bernardi & Associates, which has a San Diego office.
Supplies already were beginning to build back up by the end of April, and most grower-shippers expected volume to be at or near normal by late May.
The return to normal supplies could be a bumpy ride, said David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif.
The first time ample tomato supplies show up following a shortage, he said, “the market tends to crash and go lower than it normally would.”
It will take awhile for the market to fall into line with the supply.
“Menus have to be readjusted, and consumption patterns have to re-emerge and adjust to a more normal supply of fruit,” Cook said.
Suppliers who have a lot of tomatoes will suffer until everyone gets used to having a normal supply of tomatoes again, he said.
Baja growers were fortunate in that their winter operations are farther south than their summer operations, and they were not hit nearly as hard as the mainland.
“We were able to keep shipping over winter this year,” Biggar said.
Supplies were tight, however, and prices were much higher than usual, since winter tomato volume out of Baja is only a fraction of the volume produced on the mainland.
Andrew & Williamson regretted that it could not meet all its commitments during the winter, Munger said.
“In essence, we really let our customers down,” he said. “Our whole model is set up so we don’t do that.”
The company doesn’t plan to be caught short again.
“When these types of disasters happen, they become phenomenal learning experiences,” Munger said.
“We have spent a lot of time evaluating what went wrong, how we could have minimized the damage, and how we can make sure we don’t make ourselves vulnerable to this type of exposure again,” he said.