Tomato Growers See Red

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Cloudier, wetter and colder than normal are the tell-tale signs of an active El Niño for the Southern States and that has certainly been the case for the past several months. Indeed, the Mid-Atlantic snows are fresh in our minds, all the additional rain has eliminated drought in nearly all areas of the South and we’ve all heard about the Florida citrus crop. But did you know that Florida tomato growers have lost nearly 70% of their crop because of the cold?

Cold-damaged tomato crop near Tampa, Florida. Photo: AP/Chris O’Meara

Due to the potential widespread shortage of tomatoes, wholesale prices are up 5x over last year and restaurants that paid $15.00 per case in January, 2009 are now paying $25.00 per case. Restaurant managers are, so far, not experiencing any shortages but are ordering a wide variety to help minimize the problem. According to the USDA, as much as 2/3s of southwestern tomato production has been destroyed. Second only to China, the United States is a world leader in tomato production as fresh and processed tomatoes are a $2 Billion annual industry. Florida has the largest winter production in the U.S. while California tomatoes are harvested later in the year.

Black plastic keeps weeds down, warmth in and helps tomatoes to ripen quickly. Photo: Homestead Farm

The Southwest and the southern half of Florida are expected to experience near-normal temperatures through May. Image: ImpactWeather.

I’ve noticed my favorite burger joints’ tomatoes have been a little bit less than perfect these past few weeks and was it just two years ago there was the salmonella outbreak that left most restaurants and grocery stores with no tomatoes whatsoever? Ketchup (catsup), salsa and a ripe Beefsteak are some of my favorite things and now El Niño is reaching into my pantry and messing with my burgers! Let’s hope tomatoes make a strong come-back for the rest of 2010 and in 2011.


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