YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


You Say Tomato; I Say Expensive

March 19, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

In the produce business, it's often the most common vegetables that provide the most uncommon dramas.

When something happens to eggplants or apricots, people shop for something else. But if there's a tremor in the world of iceberg lettuce or tomatoes--types of produce that have solid bases in the fast-food and restaurant markets--things can get pretty wacky.

That was dramatically demonstrated two years ago when the Salinas flood wiped out a good chunk of the spring lettuce crop. For a while, iceberg lettuce was selling for as much as 10 times its normal price; it was more expensive than arugula.

Now, it's the tomato's turn. In the last week, prices have risen to as much as three times what they were only a month ago. Florida mature green tomatoes--the market's "gold standard"--are selling at wholesale for about $1 a pound. That compares to a range of 30 cents to 40 cents a pound in February.

The market is so desperate that some wholesalers are signing blank contracts--the amount of the bill to be filled in later--just to be guaranteed a supply.

And rightly so. Shipments of tomatoes from the two main winter growing areas--western Mexico and Florida--are down a combined 20% from February. Shipments from Mexico, by far California's biggest supplier of winter tomatoes, have been affected the most, down almost 25%.

The shortage is the result of freezing weather back in mid-January. Within a couple of weeks of each other, two cold spells wreaked disaster on both Florida and Mexico.

So why were tomatoes so much cheaper in February than now?

"It's a kind of delayed reaction," says Barbara Ruebush of the Florida Tomato Committee. "Unless a freeze is really devastating, like the one we had in 1987, the worst damage is not to the tomatoes that are actually on the vine but the ones that are just flowering. Usually we have a month or so when farmers can still pick tomatoes. It's only later when we feel the damage."

She predicts that this year's shortage will be relatively short. "Within two to three weeks, we'll start getting tomatoes from the fields we replanted after the freeze," Ruebush says. "Supplies should be up significantly."

Los Angeles Times Articles