Did you know that after oranges, tomatoes are Florida's second largest crop? It's really a shame these Florida growers couldn't hold on a little longer. Consumers may soon refuse to buy tomatoes grown in Mexico.
South Dade tomato farmers find their livelihood threatened by plunging prices, demand
With sales down and prices plunging, it has been a brutal season for tomato growers in the Homestead area.
BY ELAINE WALKER
Freddy Strano spent much of last week mowing down 100 acres of perfectly good tomatoes.
The Homestead grower was trying to cut his losses and bring to a close what has been an awful season. Strano estimates he has lost $500,000 or more this winter. The problem: He couldn't sell his tomatoes for anywhere close to what it cost to grow and harvest them.
''They were beautiful tomatoes, some of the better ones we've had in years,'' said Strano, whose family has been in the tomato business since 1939. ``The prices were just horrible. It's demoralizing. It's going to cripple everybody.''
Homestead tomato growers faced a double whammy as consumers cut back purchases amid an oversupply. The combination sent prices plummeting to the lowest levels in years. A 25-pound box of tomatoes sold for much of the winter at $4-$6. The cost to grow and harvest that box is as high as $10.
While the problems have been affecting tomato growers across the state, the pain has been more acute in South Miami-Dade, where the 12-week growing season came just as prices dropped in January.
Tomato prices only started to pick up early this month, as the season wound down.
When the losses are tallied, many fear that some smaller tomato growers could be forced out of business. It's an ongoing trend as skyrocketing growing costs, immigration reform and increased competition from Mexico have already forced major consolidation in recent years among the growers of Florida's biggest vegetable crop.
''A loser like this gets your attention really quickly,'' said Kern Carpenter, a South Miami-Dade grower who has been in the business for more than 25 years and whose family's tomato history dates back six-plus decades. ``You start to wonder, do you need to be looking to do something else?''
This year Florida tomato growers estimate consumer demand has been off 15 percent. The recession has forced consumers to cut expenses, and while tomatoes are a staple grocery item, for many people they're not a necessity. Add to that a decline in consumer confidence from the lingering effects of last year's salmonella scare, which incorrectly implicated tomatoes.
The reduced demand comes during a year when weather and soil conditions were so favorable that most growers produced more bountiful crops.
The situation got even worse when an influx of Mexican tomatoes flooded the market at low prices, raising allegations of potential trade violations.
© Janet Crain
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