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Florida Tomato Conference 2004-05 Described as Roller-Coaster Year

The Tomato Magazine
October 2005

Despite repeated hurricanes and a rollercoaster year in terms of price, the Florida fresh tomato industry’s 2004-05 marketing season was one of the best in recent memory.

Speaking during the Florida Tomato Committee (FTC) and Florida Tomato Exchange Joint Tomato Conference, Sept. 6-11, in Naples, Fla., Reggie Brown, manager, said that average weekly prices fluctuated from a high of $38.43 to a low of $2.83. The five weeks ending in January were the only weeks during the season that had a weekly average price of less than $5 per 25-pound equivalent.

“The year began with three direct hurricane hits and a fourth near miss—all within the course of about 60 days,” Brown detailed during a private interview following the conference. “The result was some of the highest tomato prices in history, followed by a sharp contraction in demand and a precipitous fall in price to below $3. All in the industry felt the pain.”

Later in the season, an effective PR campaign and excess rain in Mexico helped turn the market back around, he explained. Overall, most producers ended the season with at least some money in their pockets.

In his “letter from the chairman” section of the FTC 2005 Annual Report, David Murrah summed up the 2004-05 season this way: “Hurricane after hurricane after hurricane was an exciting, if not foreboding, start to the 2004-05 season. We had short supplies after the storms, and then rumors of short supplies even after the crops returned, followed by rumors of a glut when only an adequate supply of tomatoes existed. Yet, despite erratic supplies and pricing in the fall and winter, the season finished with a strong steady market of good quality tomatoes and fair prices.”

The 2003-04 season had only two weeks with an average price below $5 per 25-pound equivalent, those being the weeks ending Jan. 18, 2004, and June 13, 2004, the FTC’s Annual Report read. High average weekly prices of over $10 increased to 24 weeks for the 2004-05 season compared to eight weeks in the 2003-04 season. The average price for the 2004-05 season was $12.50, up from $8.04 for the previous season.

The report also noted that the total cash value of the crop was $662,635,750.50 compared to $466,438,077.50 for 2003-04 and $488,833,122 for 2002-03.

Crop Summary
The following crop summary is taken from the annual report:

The Immokalee production area was spared major damage from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne although the area received heavy rain and winds from the outer bands of Ivan as the system passed into the Gulf of Mexico late in September. The Palmetto-Ruskin area lost plastic and some plants due to the hurricanes. The East Coast area received the most severe damage from the storms, and some of the East Coast producers increased acreage planted in other areas of the state to compensate for the losses.

In the Quincy area, picking began at the end of September. Very light picking began in Immokalee in late October. Harvesting in Palmetto-Ruskin was delayed due to the storms. Weekly average prices ranged between $18.79 and $26.27 for the month of October.

Clear weather during November allowed producers to advance fieldwork and harvesting. At the beginning of the month, steady harvesting had begun in Palmetto-Ruskin and Plant City and continued in Immokalee. Light harvesting began in Homestead in mid-November. Tomato harvesting around Quincy was virtually complete by the end of November as a cold front arrived in the state. Weekly average prices ranged between $26.60 and $38.43 for the month of November.

Cool and mostly dry weather dominated the first three weeks of December. Some needed rain arrived on a cold front Christmas week with cool and mostly dry conditions returned during the last week of December. Harvesting and fieldwork progressed normally. The East Coast began harvesting in mid-December while harvesting increased steadily in Homestead. Weekly average prices ranged between $7.45 and $28.15 for the month of December.

Mild, cool temperatures dominated most of January, allowing planting and harvesting to proceed at a normal pace, the report continues. One cold front brought near freezing temperatures early in the week of Jan. 24 through 30 with no significant damage reported. Weekly average prices ranged between $2.83 and $4.84 for the month of January.
Mild conditions prevailed throughout February with little rainfall. The production areas maintained steady harvesting and fieldwork. Weekly average prices ranged between $5.86 and $11.53 for the month of February.

Rains returned in March delaying some fieldwork. Despite conditions, harvesting maintained a steady pace. Weekly average prices ranged between $8.89 and $10.66 throughout the month.

Occasional storm fronts broke up mostly dry weather and normal temperatures throughout April. Harvesting and fieldwork kept a normal pace in most areas. Weekly average prices ranged between $9.14 and $17.59 for the month of April.

The first weeks in May began with significant scattered showers delaying some fieldwork and harvesting. Normal higher temperatures and dry weather with a few showers continued through the remained of the month allowing harvesting at normal levels. Homestead completed harvesting in mid-May. Weekly average prices ranged between $11.21 and $17.61 for the month of May.

Tropical storm Arlene contributed to substantial rainfall the first two weeks of June. Rains slowed some fieldwork as harvesting came to a close in the regulated areas. The East Coast completed harvesting in early June. Districts Three and Four continued harvesting through June 15, the end of the regulated period. Weekly average prices were $11.03 and $11.11 for the first two weeks of June.

Total shipments for all four districts were 53,025,915 25-pound equivalents shipped over a 35-week period. Twenty-nine of these weeks had shipments exceeding one million packages with six of those weeks showing more than two million packages. Total shipments were down 4,963,709 15-pound equivalents from the previous season. The total value of the crop was about $662.6 million, compared to $466.4 million the previous season. The average price was $12.50 per 25-pound equivalent for the entire season compared to $8.04 for 2003-04.

Spiraling Cost of Production
As the 2005-06 season began, Brown said producers are worried about the spiraling cost of production.

“Everything that we do on the farm is tied to energy,” the FTC manager said. “Whether it is nitrogen fertilizer, petrochemicals or plastic mulches, costs are going up. We also have a new minimum wage law in Florida with a cost-of-living escalator clause.”

To spur demand for Florida tomatoes, the FTC announced a new promotional campaign over national cable TV using 15-second ads. The campaign begins Jan. 2 and will continue over an eight-week period. A total of 595 commercials will air over the Food Network, Discovery Healthy, DIY, HGTV and Discovery Home channels.

The first round of ads will air between Jan. 2 and 29 and include sponsorship announcements on Emeril Lagasee’s “Emeril Live” and HGTV’s “Fresh from the Garden” programs.
The second round of commercials start March 30 and run through April 9. These will sponsor the “30 Minute Meals” and “Kitchen Trends” programs.

Samantha Winters, the FTC’s director of education and promotion, said the 15-second spots will enable the association to double the frequency of its commercials on the lower-cost cable networks and, hopefully, gain more consumer recognition.

This year’s conference marked the 50th anniversary for the FTC. Considering the struggles and differences of opinion in the earlier years, it’s phenomenal how well the organization is working today, Brown stressed.

“ It’s especially nice to come off of a year when everybody got their money back and made a living,” he added. “We’ve had a very harmonious meeting.”

New Officers
The following officers were re-elected during the Joint Tomato Conference:

Florida Tomato Committee: Dan McClure, owner of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, chairman; Jay Taylor, secretary-treasurer at Taylor & Fulton Inc., Palmetto, vice-president; Kern Carpenter, owner of Kern Carpenter Farms Inc., Homestead, secretary; James Grainger, owner of Grainger Farms Inc., Bradenton, and co-owner of Tomatoes of Ruskin Inc., Ruskin, treasurer; and Reggie Brown, manager.

Florida Tomato Exchange: Kern Carpenter, president; David Neill, president of Big Red Tomato Packers, Fort Pierce, vice-president; James Grainger, treasurer; and Jay Taylor, secretary.

Florida Tomato Exchange: James Grainger, president; Dan McClure, vice-president; Mike Sullivan, chief financial officer of Gargiulo Inc., Naples, treasurer; and Larry Lipman, president of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, secretary.

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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