Florida tomato volumes will likely be significantly short into spring, and Mexican shipments also are expected lower.

Tony DiMare, vice president of Homestead, Fla.-based The DiMare Co., said the supply picture this winter is unprecedented.

“I’ve been in the business 33 years, and I don’t remember this type of situation. In Florida, we won’t see any normalcy until the first of April,” when the spring harvest in Immokalee begins, DiMare said Jan. 5.

Round prices, especially for larger fruit, won’t likely drop anytime soon, he said.

On Jan. 5, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $24.95-26.95 for two-layer cartons of Mexican vine-ripe 4x4s, up from $12.95-14.95 last year at the same time.

Chuck Weisinger, president and CEO of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc., agreed it could be April before it’s business as usual in Florida.

“Fourteen inches of rain knocked the stuffing out of Homestead, and there are very few in Mexico,” Weisinger said Jan. 5. “I haven’t seen this in a few years. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”

While round markets remain stuck, roma demand was softening in the first half of January, he said.

 

Late to the dance

Rio Rico, Ariz.-based Ciruli Bros. LLC normally begins sourcing Mexican tomatoes around Thanksgiving, said partner Chris Ciruli.

This season, it was the first week of January before the company started bringing its first romas across the border.

“We’re late to the dance,” Ciruli said. “It’s four to five weeks later than we’d like to see.”

The greenhouse tomato industry also was reporting high prices. Fifteen-pound flats of greenhouse vine-ripe 25s from Ontario were selling for $33-35 Jan. 5 on Boston’s terminal market, according to the USDA.

Fried de Schouwer, president of Greenhouse Produce Co., Vero Beach, Fla., said prices for some greenhouse-grown vine-ripes were three or four times higher than they typically are at this time of year.

“(The shortage of field-grown tomatoes) drives retailers to put greenhouse at the forefront, and that drives up the price relatively in synch with field tomatoes.”

Additional volumes from Mexico could start to bring prices for some tomatoes down by later in January, DiMare said.

“There have to be significant increases out of Mexico, because it’s not happening out of Florida.”

The long-range forecast doesn’t look much, if at all, better than what growers have already endured this season, with two more hurricanes forecast, Weisinger said.

In addition to excessive rain, Florida growers have battled record high temperatures at times, an El Niño effect, he said.

“The plants are tired. They need some good weather and rest. Yields are low, and with the warmer temperatures, the winter could be a whole different deal.”

To supplement Florida product, Weis-Buy was sourcing some tomatoes from the Caribbean in early January, though the cost of airfreight was about $5 per 25-pound box, Weisinger said.

Strong Merxican demand

The slow start to the Mexican export season can be traced in part to very strong demand within Mexico, Ciruli said. By January, the hot local market was starting to cool enough to send product north.

Ciruli Bros. expects its Mexican deal to peak in February and March. But even with volumes increasing every day in the first half of January, they will still be limited by poor growing weather south of the border in November and December, Ciruli said.

“Crossings the next two months will be down significantly,” with some losses potentially as high as 50%, Ciruli said Jan. 4.

The rainy winter in Florida was only accentuating Mexico’s late start and lower volumes, he said.

“It’s keeping the market very active over here.”

Nevertheless, markets in the high double-digits at the start of 2016 should start to come down, he said.

Sizes were trending big on Mexican tomatoes shipping in early January, with plenty of larges and extra-larges, Ciruli said.

Prices will likely stabilize, Weisinger said, even if there’s not the volume to meet demand. Retailers are wary, he said, of charging $3.99 or $4.99 a pound for too long.

“The terminals could go higher, but we’re at the point where people are afraid to raise it more. There could be bad long-term effects.”