The U.S. agriculture industry, especially in Florida, has a rotten tomatoes problem that has nothing to do with film reviews.
Erratic weather patterns have wreaked havoc on U.S. tomato crops from West Coast to East this winter, causing prices to spike in recent months. Tomato prices had been on a downward trend through June 2015, leveled off, and then began rising in October, peaking with a 60 percent increase in January.
The price paid to producers for 100 pounds of fresh tomatoes jumped from $35.80 in September 2015 to $108 in January, per the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Agricultural Prices report.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
To be sure, the main culprit, El Niño, negatively impacted other crops since it began last summer, including the production of oranges and California grapes. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, the mislabeled tomato (the government calls it a vegetable) has seen the biggest increases in monthly price jumps. Florida, which rivals California for top U.S. producer according to the USDA, carried the brunt of the impact.
“We haven’t had weather like this since 1989,” said Chuck Weisinger, CEO of Weis-Buy Farms in Ft. Myers, which sources produce and has a large tomato business. “We’ve had tornados all over the state, 19 inches of rain in one month when we were supposed to have 1 inch. It’s the long-term affects of El Niño.”
Another tomato-industry insider, Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, in Maitland, Florida, agrees. “It’s been the wettest winter on record in the state’s history in many of the counties in South Florida. Production volume is 30 percent below normal,” he said.
It seems to be down more than that. In January 2015, Florida shipped about 150 million pounds of tomatoes compared to 79 million this January, said Hodan Farah Wells, agricultural economist for the USDA-Economic Research Service.
The higher prices for the smaller crops has helped to make up for some of the farmers’ losses, but not all. Feeling the price squeeze the most, however, are the middlemen — the users of fresh tomatoes in their businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants. Consumers may not have seen any pricing differences yet because retailers like to keep prices steady.
“Tomato prices have been consistent and stay the same because of competition,” said Brion, an assistant team leader at the Whole Foods in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Weisinger sees a bigger problem for local producers: demand from other countries that can grow tomatoes at lower costs. He’d recently sourced tomatoes from Mexico — which has long been a big player in the industry, along with Canada — but he’s also seeing smaller countries get in the game, including El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Overall though, the U.S. currently remains second only to China, with fresh and processed tomatoes accounting for more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts, per the USDA.
The last week of March, the Brooklyn Whole Foods was selling tomatoes from Mexico, Florida, Texas and Maine, with prices ranging from $2.49 per pound for regular Roma tomatoes (compared to organic, at $2.99) to $5.99 per pound for heirlooms and $5.99 per pint ($9.58 per pound) for organic grape tomatoes from Florida. The only time Brion, who would not give his last name, sees a shift in price and volume “is when the pricing center puts tomatoes on sale.”
At the nearby Jetro Restaurant Depot, where chefs come to shop, the price of a 25-pound case of fresh greenhouse round tomatoes the same week was $23.95, which according to assistant manager Domingo Rosario, was “pretty good.”
Three weeks prior it was $30, and a couple months before that, the price had climbed to $50 per case, he said. The lowest he’s seen it in the past six months was $13.95. “It fluctuates based on the sourcing,” he said. Most of the cases in the wholesaler outlet were marked as being from Mexico.
Surprisingly, he added, when prices are at their highest, they sell more cases.
“When tomatoes are cheap, everybody has them. Restaurants can get a case for $10 outside,” Rosario said. “When expensive, fewer suppliers carry them. They’re scarce, so [the restaurants] have to come here.”
Still, buyers can get fatigued from the high prices and move to other options, which eventually will drive prices down. Brown, of the Florida Tomato Committee, expects production — and prices — to be back to normal by early May.
Benny Shakiri, owner of Beverly Pizza in Kensington, Brooklyn, certainly hopes so. He said he went from paying $14.95 to $26 to $30 per case for tomatoes in recent months.
“But I have to eat the costs because I can’t raise prices,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”