Bob Spencer, president of Palmetto, Fla.-based West Coast Tomato, was optimistic about the overall season even though Hurricane Irma created some challenges for growers. Photo courtesy West Coast Tomato

Confronted with lower volumes, the market for Florida tomatoes has been considerably higher than in the same time frame in 2016.

The f.o.b. price reported Nov. 27 from Orlando by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was $25.95 for a 25-pound carton of size 5x6 or 6x6. Last year at the same time a carton of 5x6 was going for $13.95 and a carton of 6x6 was going for $9.95-10.95.

Growers have faced delays and lower early yields in the wake of Hurricane Irma. However, because little had been planted before the storm, it is possible Irma will prove to be only a major hassle for vegetable growers rather than a catastrophe like it was for citrus growers.

“It certainly has depressed supply through the current period in time,” Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said in mid-November. “It’ll be probably some time in early to mid-December before we start catching up with normal supplies, but the crop is being harvested, it’s good quality, the size is running decently and obviously the returns are very good at this point.

“It did destroy some freshly laid plastic and it did delay some of the early plantings, but it would have been a whole lot worse situation if the hurricane was coming in late November as opposed to coming when it did,” Brown said. “We do have a reasonable chance to recover for most of the season — not the entire season, but we have a reasonably good chance of recovering financially from the hurricane.”

Bob Spencer, president of Palmetto, Fla.-based West Coast Tomato, reported that plastic ripped up by the storm caused delays and that there could be some shortages, but he was optimistic for the prospects of the season as a whole.

“Fortunately we’re right now harvesting in Manatee County, and that crop is doing OK and we have a good market, so in an overall picture we came out ahead,” Spencer said in mid-November. “We’re probably going to have a little bit of a gap in the end of November, first part of December, for the times when we normally would have planted but we weren’t able to get back in the fields because of water issues after the hurricane.

“But overall, while the storm did blow a lot of plants over and we had to deal with a lot of issues, fortunately it’s resulted in a very good market from a price standpoint, so that’s going to overcome any of the problems we may have had and faced with yields,” Spencer said.

Rick Feighery, vice president of Philadelphia-based Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., which grows tomatoes at Plant City, Fla.-based Santa Sweets, also mentioned delays but anticipated a return to schedule before long.

“Everything will be back to normal, or back to harvesting, in late December,” Feighery said in mid-November. “I think that by early January we’re back on full speed ahead.

“It’s going to start out slow,” Feighery said. “What we would normally anticipate during the first week of December ... (is) probably going to end up being the week before Christmas, the week of the 18th, and then full production the week of the 25th.”

Tony DiMare, vice president of Homestead, Fla.-based DiMare Co., detailed how the hurricane caused diminished yields as well as crop damage.

“You had as a result bacteria, disease come into the crop and affect yield as well as quality,” DiMare said in mid-November. He noted the company was into its fourth week of production at the time.

“Each week going forward will get a little bit better — the yields will get a little bit better, quality will get a little bit better, but definitely (we’re) still feeling the effects,” DiMare said.

Spencer noted a similar progression.

“The first few days the quality was rougher than normal, but now we have got very good quality, fortunately,” Spencer said. “We’ve been blessed. We made it through a pretty tough storm. We’ve got crops, unlike some of our other counterparts in other vegetables or fruits that are dealing with a lot tougher issues than we are, so we were fortunate to come through the storm in pretty good shape.”

Feighery, too, said the product has been looking good.

“The issue’s really been just the diminished supply,” Feighery said. “What we are getting off the bushes is beautiful. It’s just I wish we had a little more.”

Chuck Weisinger, president and CEO of Fort Myers-based Weis-Buy Farms, echoed that report.

“It’s not a problem with quality,” Weisinger said. “It’s been size and volume.”