Tomatoes: quality and supply up, prices down

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Florida's tomato growers are still feeling the effects of the four
hurricanes that swept through the state last year, said the Florida
Tomato Committee today, urging food manufacturers to realize that
supplies of the fruit are now plentiful.

The committee​ noted in a statement that growers are struggling to make any kind of return on their produce with prices almost as low as they have been for two decades.

"It costs the grower $9 to produce each box of tomatoes,"​ said Dr. John Van Sickle, an economist with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "That $9 per box includes growing them, packing them and getting them out of the door of the packinghouse. At the $2, $3 and $4 our growers are currently getting per box, it is clear they are taking a serious beating."

The Tomato Committee, though, added that the quality of the fruit is exceptional and there is no longer a shortage, despite perceptions to the contrary in the food industry.

"We're looking forward to our foodservice business picking up soon,"​ said Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Florida Tomato Committee. "The perception exists to some extent that we are experiencing a tomato shortage, but this cannot be further from the truth. The beautiful weather we've had since the hurricanes has provided us with consistent volumes of tomatoes at exceptional quality."

She noted that in some cases the consumer is winning as certain retailers have seized advantage of these price cuts and are passing the low prices along to their customers, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their competitors.​ reported at the beginning of December that volumes were finally getting back to normal, at 75 percent of what they historically are for the time of year. Two weeks earlier, growers had been packing 35 percent of what is typical for the season.

Florida is the nation's largest producer of fresh tomatoes and is estimated to account for about 50 percent of all tomatoes produced domestically.

In a typical year, the volume of fresh-market tomatoes from Florida usually begins to increase in November with the state accounting for over half of total supplies (57 percent on average), said the ERS. At the same time, California shippers generally start to wind down, supplying about 20 percent of the US market and imports begin to rise with Mexico accounting for about 20 percent and others (primarily hothouse producers in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands) providing 4-5 percent of the market. By December, Florida's growers typically ship two-thirds of the nation's fresh tomato supplies and imports from Mexico account for nearly 30 percent.

Fresh tomato shipping point prices averaged 99 cents per pound in November 2004, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Agricultural Prices - 225 percent above prices for the same period in 2003 and the highest level since record highs in January 1990. Tomato prices in early December fell significantly as a result of stronger tomato shipments from both Florida and Mexico. Weather and market conditions led to the high prices in October and November, and seasonal factors set the stage for recovery in December.

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