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Tomatoes in a Stew

IN SEASON

February 15, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Growing tomatoes in midwinter seems hard enough, but Florida farmers just suffered another blow. A sudden storm on the state's west coast last week appears to have destroyed 40% to 50% of the Florida winter tomato crop.

Definite figures are not available--it will take a week or more to determine a more exact percentage--but the market is already responding.

Florida tomatoes that were selling for $4 to $5 wholesale per 25-pound box the day before the storm are going for $12 to $14.

Odds are, the part of that sentence that caught your eye was the $4 to $5 price tag for 25 pounds of tomatoes. That's another part of the dilemma of the winter tomato growers: Prices this year have been the pits.

The problem, Florida growers say, is competition from Mexico. Between the peso's tailspin and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which expanded trade with Mexico, tomatoes have been pouring in. Roughly 60% of the tomatoes sold in the United States in January came from Mexico. This year's imports of Mexican tomatoes are up 50% from 1995.

In Los Angeles, roughly 85% of the tomatoes sold the first week of February--before the freeze--were from Mexico. That compares to 55% for the 1990 winter season.

"Mexico is having a bumper crop of tomatoes, and they're dumping them at below the cost of production," claims Wayne Hawkins, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee. "They did this last year too, but they waited until February. This year they started in December and the whole season has been a disaster."

Since the Florida harvest hit its stride in mid-January, prices have rarely risen above $5 a box for the top grade and $3 to $4 for smaller tomatoes--roughly half last year's prices.

Hawkins also worries about what is coming down the pike once the plants killed by this most recent storm are replanted and begin to bear fruit. "When they do that, they'll be right in competition with the people planting the spring crop up in north Florida," he says, "and that'll cause another glut situation.

"This is what happened in '91 when we lost 12,000 acres of tomatoes in December, replanted them all in a two- to three-day period and then lost them again because when they were ready to be harvested, we had so many tomatoes we couldn't give them away."

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