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Area tomato glut crashes prices

MANATEE — The “disaster to end all disasters” is what Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange calls the glut of tomatoes that has depressed tomato prices around the state.

“The level of tension and the stress among growers is very, very strong at this point. It’s the worst possible nightmare,” Brown said.

David Hunsader, of Hunsader Farms, said Monday that he is selling 25-pound buckets of his tomatoes to the public for $1 this week and next week.

“We figured we might as well give the public a chance to get some cheap tomatoes,” said Hunsader, who has a few hundred acres planted in the fruit on his farm, on County Road 675 midway between state roads 64 and 70.

Hunsader Farms sold tomatoes for a similar price in the early 1990s, “when we had bunch of tomatoes and nowhere to go with them,” Hunsader said.

“Everybody is in the same boat and help is real short this year. That’s another problem,” Hunsader said.

Manatee County is Florida’s top tomato-producing county.

Billy Heller of Pacific Tomato said local growers are finding it “pretty challenging right now. We would like to have a chance to make a profit. Right now we are not even covering our growing costs.”

Local growers see the glut as a disaster on top of a disaster. The unusually long period of cold weather this winter hampered planting.

Due to weather conditions, Florida growers were out of the marketplace for 90 days, and now that they have come back, they are barely receiving enough to cover the cost of picking and packing their fruit, Brown said.

In March, the price of tomatoes rose so high many consumers stopped buying them, and some restaurants cut back on serving them.

“It happens in our business from time to time. That’s the life of farming,” Heller said. “I’ve been doing it almost 30 years and this is what it’s like. Sometimes the ocean is dead calm and sometimes it’s a stormy sea.”

Some consumers, who curbed their purchase of tomatoes when prices were high, haven’t started buying them again even though prices are a bargain, Brown said.

Growers generally like to get $8-$9 for a 25-pound box of tomatoes, but are currently getting about half that, Brown said.

Hunsader said he is opening up a 30-acre field 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday this week to the public.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.

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