As Florida's tomato industry meets Sept. 6-9 in Naples, Fla., for the joint tomato conference, growers and shippers need to consider the future of their business.

Since 2000, mature-green production has fallen 35% and the yearly value of mature-greens and vine-ripes has been low.

Florida's U.S. market share has declined from 64% in the early 2000s to 45% today.

Mexico's adapted and controlled environment (non-field-grown) tomatoes have gained ground.

In today's giant retail tomato category, many shoppers view mature-green tomatoes as "old school" and as a utility tomato.

With consumer interest in local, the item could be marketed as a comfort food.

Because of the perception that greenhouse products develop more flavor on the vine, years ago, one major foodservice operator decided to only purchase vine-ripes, which excluded Florida.

Overall tomato sales are increasing and 70% of shoppers said they prefer to purchase ripe tomatoes, according to data from The Packer's 2016 Fresh Trends consumer survey.

Since 2011, Florida vine-ripes have averaged about 12% of the state's mature-green production.

That percentage hasn't changed much and needs to increase if the mature-green-dominated Florida tomato industry wants to remain competitive.

Vine-ripes require more handling than the sturdy gassed greens, but greenhouse operations efficiently ship their products.

Tasti-Lee, a University of Florida-developed vine-ripe tomato known for its home-grown taste, is popular.

At least two of the state's largest tomato growers grow or are experimenting with greenhouse tomatoes.

Florida's proximity to southeastern and northeastern retailers is an advantage and delivery systems could be developed to be more competitive with Mexican product.

Two of Florida's biggest tomato packers also operate vegetable repacking businesses throughout North America.

More operations should consider diversifying beyond their catalogs of mature-greens, grapes, romas and cherries.

Retail mature-green sales are small. Foodservice accounts for about 70% of purchases, a business that is considered consistent.

Growers shouldn't lessen the foodservice focus, but to increase competitiveness in other business segments they need to consider adding other commodities and sell more products demanded by the marketplace.

Creating a North American tomato promotion group could increase consumption of all varieties and benefit all regions.

As other produce items are enjoying increasing sales, Florida's tomato industry shouldn't miss the boat on that demand.

Florida tomato growers are smart business operators and should seriously consider a change of strategy. The industry's future is at stake.

Doug Ohlemeier is The Packer's eastern editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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