Pressured on many sides, growers in the larger central and south Florida tomato production areas say the north Florida deal continues to decline in volume and importance.
Quincy-area production, which includes south Georgia and north Florida acreage, serves as a transition from California and other summer deals to the start of central Florida’s fall shipments. In June, Quincy supplies tomatoes after central Florida’s finish to the start of other regional summer deals.
“Quincy had a nice little niche there for a number of years as once you got into October, there weren’t many tomatoes around,” said Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for the Lipman Family Cos., Immokalee, which grows and packs tomatoes through Six L’s Packing Co. Inc.
“California got big and went fairly late, which put a lot of pressure on Quincy.”
Years ago, that pressure knocked out some Quincy growers when Odell worked the deal for another grower-shipper.
Growers say the deal has an estimated 1,500 acres, down from the 2,200 acres it used to have each spring and fall as recently as 2008.
The acreage tumble comes after growers sustained several seasons of disappointing production and markets.
Buying broker Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., calls the Quincy deal a niche deal similar to South Carolina’s June deal.
As with any crop, growers need money to compete.
“It’s like you hitting the 400-yard dash,” Weisinger said. “If you miss your partner with your baton, you’re out of business and you won’t win your race. They have to hit it right.”
During the past several seasons, it has been difficult for north Florida growers to make much money from selling tomatoes in their short four- to six-week fall and summer windows.
This fall, prices opened at $9 for mature-greens and fell $1 every week, said Billy Don Grant, co-owner and salesman for the Quincy-based Gadsden Tomato Co. Inc. and the Quincy Tomato Corp. Grant planned to finish fall harvesting in early December. The deal normally ends in late November.
One of the driest recent summers kept fruit from setting and produced lighter than normal yields.
This spring, winter freezes caused the Palmetto-Ruskin deal to overlap with Quincy and sent prices to $3 a box, making it the worst deal Quincy growers have ever experienced.
Grant and others ended up abandoning half their acreage, which was shaping up to be one of the best crops in years.
Grant remains optimistic and says he thinks the region remains important in the tomato deal.
“The deal is still strong,” he said. “This deal probably should stay where it is. We can’t get much smaller than what we are now and remain efficient.”
Because of fuel costs and economics of the deal, Grant says he can see some central Florida shippers discontinuing trucking Quincy tomatoes to Palmetto-Ruskin for packing.
Grant says Subway and Wal-Mart have remained big buyers of the region’s tomatoes.
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