It’s been a dispiriting year for Manatee County tomato farmers with prices falling at harvest time.
“Every year in the spring, it’s been bad for the last few seasons, and last fall it was bad also,” said David Hunsader of Hunsader Farms, 5500 County Road 675.
“We were thinking it was going to get better seeing that a couple of other tomato farms are out – they aren’t growing any tomatoes this year,” Hunsader said Thursday as farmworkers picked tomatoes on his 165 acres in East Manatee. “As of right now, the prices are going down. They aren’t going up. So we’ll see what happens.”
Hunsader Farms is well known for its “U-pick” crops and the Hunsader Pumpkin Festival. But the company’s reach extends well beyond Manatee County. The Hunsaders are part owners of Harlee Packing in Palmetto. Hunsader tomatoes are consumed not only locally but in dining rooms and restaurants across the country.
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A farmer has to be patient and optimistic. When you look at all the hurdles, it takes an optimistic person to put a seed in the ground in the first place.
Bob Spencer, president of West Coast Tomato
Bob Spencer, president of West Coast Tomato, said prices have been averaging $6 to $7 for a 25-pound box, while $8 to $10 a box is what growers would like.
“What we have been dealing with the past 20 years since NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) is Mexico,” Spencer said. “In the winter and spring, they dump a lot of their produce in the United States.”
Gary Reeder, president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau, said tomato prices have been depressed for the past nine months.
“It hasn’t been fun, I can tell you,” Reeder said. “If you can’t afford to harvest them, you’re going backwards.”
Reeder said he has cut back his acreage devoted to tomatoes. Several growers said one of the county’s largest farmers has stopped growing tomatoes, but the Herald was unable to contact that grower for confirmation.
It is not unheard of for tomato farmers to get out of the business. In February, Jaap-Jan De Greef of Whisenant Farms told the Herald his company had closed its labor camp after failing to turn a profit for seven tomato seasons. Bruce Shackleford of 4 Star Tomato told the Herald in October 2016 that his company had stopped growing tomatoes.
Despite the challenges with tomato prices, Reeder said he is planning to stay the course.
“This is tomato country. They grow better here than anyplace else in the world,” Reeder said.
Spencer was philosophical about tomato prices.
“A farmer has to be patient and optimistic. When you look at all the hurdles, it takes an optimistic person to put a seed in the ground in the first place.”