Florida growers have seen such low prices this winter that some have elected to disk fields or to not harvest their full yield.

The market has improved some recently, particularly for sweet corn and squash, growers said, but the season has been a difficult one.

Gene McAvoy, the Hendry County extension director, said the drop in prices has been unusual in its duration and in its breadth.

"Oftentimes you'll see tomatoes are down but peppers are up or squash is up, but we've seen peppers, tomatoes, squash, cucumber, radishes, just a wide variety of produce, lettuce, a lot of stuff has been down," McAvoy said.

"Hundreds of acres of tomatoes, sometimes only picked once, not that they're totally abandoned, but they may just take the crown, the best fruit off, and then move on," McAvoy said. "Acres of radishes, a lot of different vegetables."

Tony DiMare, vice president at Homestead, Fla.-based DiMare Co., said prices are a bit better now than earlier this winter, but remain low.

"You're talking about - still - significant losses," DiMare said. "This is pretty bad."

Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said a number of factors have contributed to the situation, including ideal weather.

"Some growers have said they have 20% more product this year, with no changes in production practices," Lochridge said in an e-mail. "Mexico production is high as well. But consumer demand has stayed flat, so in essence there's nowhere for all of that great produce to go."

Chuck Weisinger, president and CEO of Fort Myers, Fla.-based Weis-Buy Farms, said many crops were picked only once and that everyone is feeling the lower prices.

"It's sad," Weisinger said. "It's terrible."

The Hendry County extension office recommends that, once a decision is made to abandon a field, whatever product remains there should be destroyed quickly, lest insects and disease take hold and later affect nearby fields.

"It's a tough call but they don't have any choice, really," McAvoy said. "Once the economics get to a point where you're going to lose more money (if you harvest), you have to make that call as a businessman. But nobody's happy about it."

McAvoy said he has gotten criticism regarding the disking of fields, with some wondering why the produce isn't donated.

The answer is that food banks simply cannot absorb it all.

Feeding Florida took in 2 million pounds of fresh produce from growers in December alone. It had access to 6 million, said Feeding Florida executive director Robin Safley, who started in her job about a year ago and is working to increase the cold storage capacity of the organization's network.

Low prices have caused concern for many, with some growers worried their businesses may not survive.

"There's a lot of gloom and doom out there," McCoy said, describing the sentiment of a group of growers with whom he talked during a recent trade meeting.

"Some of the weaker growers could go under as a result of this," McCoy said. "It's hard to say at this point. They weren't talking real positive, let's put it that way."

DiMare, too, had heard a couple of tomato growers who weren't sure they could weather this season's losses.

Jeff Williams, president at Wimauma, Fla.-based Wm. P. Hearne Produce Co., also said this winter season has been tough.

Wm. P. Hearne Produce does mainly cabbage, which Williams said is selling below production costs. Recently growers have talked about breaking even as a good year.

"It's really, really surprising that you haven't heard of more people exiting the business," Williams said.

On the other hand, some growers have already seen prices improve for the commodities they grow.

Bryan Biederman, an owner of Belle Glade, Fla.-based Scotlynn Sweet Pac Growers, said he thought the market had turned a corner, with prices coming back.

Sweet Pac grows a lot of sweet corn, and Biederman hadn't heard of anyone disking that crop, though for about two weeks after Thanksgiving prices were less than ideal.

"Things slowed down, but they didn't hit rock bottom," Biederman said.

He had heard that tomato and pepper growers were hurting, however. Lochridge also noted those groups as having the most difficult time.

Jon Browder, sales manager at Belle Glade-based Pioneer Growers Co-Op, also noted a turnaround in prices for sweet corn.

"We went through the doldrums from December until about 10 days ago," Browder said in an e-mail Jan. 18.

DiMare had a different observation.

"I don't see any relief in sight," DiMare said.

Weisinger said he expected prices would turn around but said that damage was already done.

"I think we're going to see better prices now," Weisinger said. "The only thing is it's too late for some Florida growers."

 
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