By Doug Ohlemeier for The Packer

Challenging growing conditions and lower-than-normal prices have pressured Florida tomato grower-shippers in their winter and spring deals.

"The winter crop has been a decent crop," Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of Immokalee-based Six L's Packing Co. Inc., said. "The crops have been decent but the market is lousy. With the costs we have in them, we can lose a lot of money. It hasn't been a good year so far. There's not one person making money."

Lipman characterized growing conditions in February as wetter than normal. Spring tomatoes were being planted in Ruskin during mid February.

Winter tomatoes have been shipping out of south Florida's Homestead, Immokalee, Naples and Fort Pierce and other East Coast growing regions. The regions' spring deals normally begin in mid-March and run through the middle to end of April, when production in the Palmetto-Ruskin region of central Florida kicks in.

 

MINIMAL FREEZE DAMAGE

The two freezes which struck Florida caused no significant damage in Homestead, said Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc.

All southern Florida growing areas should see a small amount of bloom drop from the cold mornings, DiMare said. That bloom drop may result in a small yield reduction, he said.

The Palmetto-Ruskin central Florida growing region, because of the early stage the planted tomatoes were in, shouldn't have any damage, DiMare said.

Palmetto-Ruskin tomatoes should start on time during mid-April, said Carlos Blanco, director of grape tomato operations for Palmetto-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., which grows and ships mature greens, romas and grape tomatoes from southern, central and northern Florida and the eastern shore.

"We have a good spring crop coming on from central Florida," Blanco said in late February. "We have had a good growing winter. The colder Immokalee temperatures have helped us size up."

Blanco characterized grape tomato quality from Immokalee as excellent.

 

HOTTER

December and January's above-normal temperatures and higher-than-average humidity and rainfall adversely affected yields and promoted disease for the Homestead growing region, DiMare said.

"We have had challenging growing conditions," he said in late February. "The quality has been good overall. Size has been down overall, which cuts your tonnage. When you have warm temperatures, it's hard to get fruit size."

The hotter temperatures have put Homestead tomatoes 10 days to 14 days ahead of schedule, DiMare said.

Despite cold spells in late January and mid-February, temperatures have continued to climb, he said. That could make the deal finish a bit earlier than normal. DiMare, however, said there shouldn't be any concern for product skips.

"Yields and volume may be reduced but there shouldn't be any skips or voids," he said in late February.

 

LOWER MARKET

Florida's tomato market was considerably lower this year than last season for mature-greens, romas and grapes. Cherry tomatoes, however, were a little higher, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In late February from south Florida, 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better in 5x6s sold for $11.45; 6x6s for $10.45 and 6x7sfor $9.45.

Romas from south Florida sold for $11.45 for 25-pound cartons of extra large; $10.45 for large; and $9.45-10.45 for medium.

Grapes from the area sold for $13.45-15.45 for flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids, and 20-pound cartons loose went for $25.45-27.45.

Flats of 12 1-pint baskets of red cherry tomatoes from southern regions fetched $7.45-8.45.

Last year, in late February, the USDA reported these prices from south Florida: 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better in 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s sold for $15.45-16.45; U.S. No. 2 5x6s, 6x6s and 6x7s sold for $13.45-14.45.

South Florida romas sold for $13.45-14.45 for 25-pound cartons of extra-large; $12.45-13.45 for large; $11.45-12.45 for medium.

Grape tomatoes from the southern Florida production region sold for $11.45-12.45 for flats of 12 1-pint containers with lids and 20-pound cartons loose went for $25.45-27.45.

For cherry tomatoes, flats of 12 1-pint baskets garnered $9.45-10.45.

Because the colder late January and early February weather limited Florida supplies, along with the weather reducing early supplies of Mexican tomatoes, Lipman said the market in mid-February had improved from earlier levels.