Doug OhlemeierA worker grades grape tomatoes on Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd.’s Wimauma, Fla., packing line in early November. Because of unfavorable growing conditions that reduced yields by 30% to 70%, Jon Esformes, operating partner, says the Palmetto-Ruskin deal will never be normal this year.RUSKIN, Fla. — Grape and cherry tomatoes remain key parts of Florida’s tomato basket.
Though grape volume is down because of an unfavorable growing season, grower-shippers report high-quality fruit.
Because of heavy September rains, growers harvested yields down 30% or more from usual, said Tony DiMare, vice president of the Homestead-based DiMare Co., which grows and packs from Ruskin.
He said the central Florida deal has been producing smaller volumes but quality remains high.
In late November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids of grape tomatoes from central and South Florida selling for $11.95-12.95 and 20-pound cartons bulk bringing $21.95-22.95.
Grape tomatoes enjoy strong consumer demand and retain their “rising star” status in the tomato category.
“I see grapes continuing to enjoy expanded consumption,” said Jon Esformes, operating partner of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto. “There’s no question that grapes have entered the commodity phase in their life cycle. As all new items do, they go from being a specialty to a commodity.
“Grapes are one of the reasons we’ve been very focused on continuing to maintain and expand the quality of the grape tomatoes we produce and the packaging alternatives we are capable of producing to meet the skewed demand these tomatoes enjoy from retailers.”
For Pacific, grapes and cherries account for about half of its Florida production with round reds, which include mature-greens and vine-ripes, constituting the balance.
Joseph Procacci, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., which owns Plant City-based Santa Sweets Inc., was one of the first to grow and market grape tomatoes.
“Ten years ago, we had the lion’s share of the market,” said Rick Feighery, Procacci’s and Santa Sweets’ vice president of sales. “But it’s become a commodity. The grape tomato itself is definitely a commodity within the category now. Our sales are very good, but there’s always room to continue to expand.”
By far, round tomatoes command the biggest marketplace share, followed by romas, he said.
“Romas and grapes have obviously experienced a lot of increase in demand and interest,” DiMare said. “Because of their versatility and use, grape demand remains strong. Supplies have been stronger and prices have been more stable than some of the other items.”
Fall cherry tomato production began in early October, and DiMare characterized quality as high.
Cherry tomatoes are seeing gains in demand, DiMare said.
“We have had some foodservice trade switch back into and demand cherries again for use in salads,” he said. “Cherries are an excellent eating quality tomato and said the variety works well with restaurants and chefs that want something that eats well.”
Both varieties sell well for Wimauma-based Tomato Thyme Corp.
“Grape tomato sales are really growing. So are cherries,” said Michael Lacey, director of sales and marketing. “The pint business can become competitive because everyone has it and everyone’s growing grapes. Not everyone, however, sells them in 4-ounce containers, which make it catchy. We are seeing some requests from the schools for the 4-ounce packages.”
Cherry tomatoes retain reasonable demand, Pacific’s Esformes said.
“It’s one of those items that people either use or they don’t,” he said. “It’s not a big item but it is a tomato product.”
Taste helped grape tomatoes overtake cherries in popularity, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Fort Myers-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc.
“It seems like more people want the flavor of the grape tomato than the tartness of the cherries anymore,” he said. “But there still is some demand. They’re like cucumbers. You have a certain amount of people who still want them. Cherries are in a niche market at this point because everyone’s using grapes.”