By Clint Thompson
Tomato growers across the Southeast are enjoying high prices right now, which marks a significant change from March when Florida producers had to leave many in the field amid the coronavirus pandemic. That is not the case anymore, however, says Michael Schadler, executive vice president at the Florida Tomato Exchange.
“Market price has been high. Coming down a little bit the last couple of weeks, but overall, prices have been pretty good,” Schadler said. “That’s just a function of supply has been light out of Florida and supply has been light out of Mexico as well. We would have liked to have had a little bit better yields in Florida this spring. We’ve had yield issues that have limited supplies but the fact that market prices are high after what happened back in March and April, it’s real nice.”
Schadler attributes Florida’s poor supply to pest and disease pressure.
Florida tomato growers have experienced an up and down season. This is especially true for South Florida production impacted by COVID-19 when it struck in mid-March.
“It was a situation where we had never seen the markets turn off like that overnight. We’ve certainly gone through our share of bad markets over the decades, usually based on over-supplies coming in from Mexico and even over-supply in Florida. Having bad markets is nothing new,” Schadler said. “Having it come about in that way where everything shuts down, price didn’t matter at that point.”
Growers could not give their crop away. Tens of millions of tomatoes were lost. But to see the market recover, which will benefit other states like Georgia and Alabama, is encouraging to see.
“When we were looking at this thing in early April, when we were doing an assessment right around April 1 and going through two or three weeks in an unprecedented environment, we were thinking, ‘Man if this thing doesn’t turn around, we’ve got a big spring crop; the Florida spring crop is pretty big in April and May, we’re going to have devastating losses,’” Schadler said. “Right around April 5 or April 6, demand started to come back. I think what happened was, the buyers that sell into food service, when everything hit the fan in mid-March, they kind of shut down. I think they let the pipeline clear out a little bit. The pipeline was completely empty after the first week in April and they realized, obviously, there’s still demand for tomatoes.
“That demand came back a little bit, coupled with the fact that Mexico was quite light and Florida volume was lighter than normal. We had lower yields through the spring. We actually were able to bounce back for a big part of April and so far in May as well.
“As far as an industry as a whole, looking back over the six or seven months of the Florida tomato season, it’s going to average out to be a decent season for us.”