Local tomato prices growing

RICHARD DYMOND
Herald Staff Writer

MANATEE - The price consumers pay for tomatoes could jump a dollar a pound over the next few weeks due to the beating that tomato plants took from Hurricane Wilma in October.

"We all got hurt bad - probably lost 20 to 30 percent of our tomatoes in Manatee County," Kenny Foy, farm manager for Palmetto's Taylor-Fulton Farms, said Monday as he surveyed a tomato field off State Road 70 filled with scarred fruit and not much of it. "The wind really hurt the plants."

But the expected price increase - $2.49 to $3.49 per pound at local grocery stores - is really the result of the hurricane's impact in the southern part of the state around Immokalee, where plants were actually blown out of the ground, Foy said.

"Roughly 75 to 80 percent of the fall tomato crop in Immokalee was lost," Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, said Monday.

"We don't have a crystal ball, but we will be going into a period where we have the shortest supply for the season," Brown said. "Consumer prices will go up to a certain extent. One dollar a pound is a reasonable expectation."

The first indication that tomato prices will most certainly rise came this week when the wholesale price for tomatoes, the price that grocery stores, restaurants and other tomato volume users pay, shot up to $25 for a 25-pound box, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fruit and Vegetable Market News.

The wholesale price for tomatoes was $6 to $10 for a box two weeks ago.

The question now is when and how much of the wholesale increase retailers will pass on to consumers.

On Monday, tomato prices at several local grocery stores still didn't reflect a jump, but growers say it is coming.

"I don't think the wholesale prices will reach what they were in 2004," said Miles Deitz, a farm supervisor with Palmetto's West Coast Tomato. "But I look for wholesale prices to hit $30 a box soon."

At Publix Market at Gateway North in Lakewood Ranch on Monday, vine-ripened tomatoes were selling for $1.49 per pound with plum tomatoes at $1.49, on-the-vines for $2.99 and beefsteak at $2.99.

At the Sweetbays on State Road 70, vine ripened were selling for $1.99, on-the-vines for $2.29 and hot house for $2.49.

"The prices of tomatoes has been the same for a while," said one produce manger who wanted his name withheld.

It is impossible to know exactly how grocery store buyers will price tomatoes, Foy said.

"For one period last year, I remember tomatoes were going for around $5 for 25 pounds wholesale and be selling for $4 for a pound at the grocery stores," Foy said. "Sometimes wholesale and retail don't mirror each other. We don't know for sure what they will do."

Grocery store tomatoes jumped to $4 a pound in November 2004 after the 2004 hurricane season.

Due to lack of supply, wholesale prices for tomatoes reached an all-time high of around $50 for a 25-pound box in 2004.

The Sandbar Restaurant paid $56 for a 25-pound box of tomatoes on Nov. 20, 2004, according to General Manager Adam Williams.

Because of the damaged tomato supply in Immokalee, buyers are going to look further north, to Manatee County, and there will be shortages there also, Foy said.

"Look here," said Foy, folding back a tomato plant to show blackened leaves where the wind did damage. "I should be able to grasp handfuls of tomatoes here. But there isn't much fruit and a lot of what there is scarred and is not usable. We just didn't set a lot of good fruit this fall."

The damaged tomatoes will still be picked by farmworkers, securing them a job through December, but many of the tomatoes will be rejected at the packing house, Foy said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917 or rdymond@HeraldToday.com.