PALMETTO, Fla. — The biggest challenge facing Florida tomato growers is labor, and grower-shippers say the issue is becoming critical.
Doug OhlemeierWorkers grade grape tomatoes on the packing line at Palmetto, Fla.-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd.’s Wimauma, Fla., packing shed in early November. “There’s a shortage now and there are shortages around the (produce) industry,” said Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, which also packs tomatoes in Ruskin.
“Look at what happened to Georgia last year with that state imposing their (anti-immigration) law. The damage was caused because workers truly bypassed the Georgia deal due to the laws they implemented. That left a lot of crops in the field that were never harvested.”
DiMare noted how California and Washington state this past season experienced shortages.
He said Florida growers experienced worker shortages last season and said he thinks it will continue to be a problem. DiMare estimates Florida labor availability fell by 20% last season.
J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc., Plant City, and COO of Procacci Bros. Sales Inc., Philadelphia, said labor availability gave growers many headaches over the last year or two.
“Labor, last year, in New Jersey, was a crime,” Procacci said.
“We didn’t have enough workers to cultivate our crops.”
Procacci said Ag-Mart’s north Florida tomato production, grown in the Jennings area just south of the Georgia-Florida state boundary, received adequate labor.
“We didn’t have enough to pick our crops in North Carolina,” he said.
“It seems they (the workers) don’t want to cross Georgia to come up north. They can’t get around Alabama and Georgia. It looks like the Confederates finally figured out how to do a Union blockade.”
Michael Lacey, director of sales and marketing for Wimauma, Fla.-based Red Diamond Farms, a division of Tomato Thyme Corp., said the grower-shipper remains fortunate to see the same workers return every season.
“We have very low turnover,” he said.
“We try to pay a little more for our crews. It’s because of how we treat them, take care of them and pay them, what we can offer them and the ability to keep them busy. We constantly try to have tomatoes in our house so they can pick and work. We have the inventory to do that. As soon as you don’t have work for them, they will go pick cantaloupe or strawberries.”
Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, said labor remained adequate in Virginia where East Coast grows Eastern Shore tomatoes.
Madonia said growers should maintain a mindset of treating their workers well. In 2008, the grower-shipper constructed a community center and day care facility adjacent to its packinghouse.
The family-run East Coast leases the facility, which also includes a computer center and features weekly Catholic services, to the Immokalee-based Redlands Christian Migrant Association for $1 a year.
“You cannot go wrong treating your workers as well as you can,” Madonia said.
“You cannot go wrong making sure these people are protected, paid fairly and treated humanely. I think our workers appreciate everything we’ve done as much as we appreciate everything they do for us.”
Madonia said East Coast tries to accommodate any reasonable worker request.
In Virginia, East Coast constructed soccer fields behind its packinghouse and sponsors soccer and baseball leagues for workers.
Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said Florida growers remain dedicated to producing high-quality tomatoes.
“Florida growers have a pretty good crop,” he said.
“They do what it takes to make the product good. It’s just that our costs are going up. Still, Florida’s growers remain the eternal optimists. They know what everything costs, such as fertilizer spray, plastic and other material. But they don’t know what they’ll get for their products. They just hope it will all come out.”