( File photo )

After a lighter-than-normal start in late October, Florida’s tomato volume had begun to accelerate in mid-November, said Michael Schadler, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee.

“The first few weeks of the Central Florida deal — which started in late October — have been relatively light in volume with fruit size trending smaller than normal,” he said. 

It was a result, in part, of record high temperatures throughout September and October, which affected the fruit set on early-season acreage, Schadler said.

“As we move into mid-November, however, crop volume and fruit size are getting back to normal, and quality has been very good,” he said. 

“We expect it to stay that way as production begins to move to South Florida later this month and into the winter.” 

The early light volumes, coupled with reduced volume from Mexico, led to higher prices, Schadler said.

“We expect it to stay that way as production begins to move to South Florida later this month and into the winter.” 

“And we’re now seeing prices spike even higher due to reduced Mexican volume, particularly for roma tomatoes,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of Nov. 16, 25-pound containers of vine-ripe tomatoes from Mexico were $18.95-26.95 in all sizes.
 
A year earlier, the same product was $19.85-22.95 for size 4-by-5, and $18.95-21.95 for 5-by-5 and 5-by-6.

“Once Sinaloa and South Florida start ramping up volume in December, I expect markets to moderate by the end of the year and through the winter months,” Schadler said. 

“Hopefully, moderation is all that happens, but frankly, the pattern in recent years has been an overwhelming onslaught of volume from Mexico through the winter, pushing market prices below the cost of production in Florida.”

Volume

Last year, shippers in the committee’s production area packed 25.9 million 25-pound equivalent containers of round tomatoes, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

This represents a 21% decrease compared to the previous season and the smallest crop on record since 1976-77, when a freeze knocked out Florida’s winter crop. 

The significant volume reduction in 2017-18 was mainly from the damage to the fall crop caused by Hurricane Irma, which made landfall near Marco Island on Sept. 10 as a Category 3 hurricane. 

This year, Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm, roared across Florida’s Panhandle in mid-October but never threatened South Florida’s crops, grower-shippers said.

This year, heat was the tomato growers’ chief nemesis, said Barry Stein, sales manager for Palmetto, Fla.-based Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC.

“We have very light crops so far because of that,” he said. 

“It was the warmest September on record, as far as we know.”

Excess rainfall also has posed problems at times, said Tony DiMare, vice president of Homestead, Fla.-based grower-shipper DiMare Co.

“This year’s Palmetto/Ruskin fall crop has been impacted by record-breaking heat in the months of September and October, and into the start of November,” DiMare said. 

“These conditions, coupled with untimely rains during September and early October, resulted in reduced yields and smaller-than-normal fruit size for the start of the Florida fall season.”

Quality overall has been very good, though, DiMare said.

Two large participants in Florida’s tomato business exited in 2018 — Del Monte and Harllee Packing — and that certainly affected volumes, Stein said.

“Then, it seemed the perfect storm with a lack of products, with no great amounts coming from Mexico and California finishing all at once,” he said.
 
“All of that has led to a real shortage of round tomatoes at this time, continuing perhaps into December.”

Hurricane

Hurricane Michael didn’t touch the Florida crop, but it destroyed product in South Georgia, and that affected the market in general, said Chuck Weisinger, president and CEO of Weis-Buy Farms Inc., a Fort Myers, Fla.-based brokerage.

“Demand is fueled by supplies,” he said. 

So are prices, said Bob Spencer, partner in Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato LLC.

“Right now, the market is excellent. We’re looking at $20 rounds and $26 probably on romas,” he said.  

“Normally, you’re anywhere from $8-10.”

Quality has been “probably average,” Spencer said.

“But as the temperatures cool a little ... I’d expect our quality to continue to get better,” he said.

 
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