Florida tomato growers gathered in September at the Joint Florida Tomato Conference to get updates on research into plant pests and diseases, hear the latest on development of a single food safety audit, and discuss the outlook for the coming season.
It was the latter that had the most urgency.
In his "state of the industry" presentation, Florida Tomato Exchange Executive Vice President Reggie Brown says the industry emerged from last season bruised and hurting.
However, he is positive about the upcoming year. He emphasized that tomato producers' collective strength comes from their organization, and he cited their long record of leading the rest of the produce industry on important issues, including food safety.
"We are coming on the heels of a terrible season," Brown says. "But I am optimistic about the season ahead."
Florida's tomato producers are "smarting from a season that was no fun," he says.
The value of tomato production last season took a big tumble from the previous year. Production fell from $432 million in 2010-11 to $252 million, with an average price of $6.62 a box.
For two very tough months, prices were below $5 a box, Brown says. A key cause of such a dismal season, industry leaders say, was the dumping of Mexican tomatoes into this country at prices below what it costs to produce them.
So U.S. producers have asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to end an agreement reached in 1996 that they say no longer works.
The move has drawn reaction from other sectors of the produce industry that say it will start a trade war with Mexico.
But the move is necessary, Brown says.
"We have worked on behalf of the industry and have found a strong commitment and resolve to deal with the issue within the rights and privileges we have under U.S. law. We are absolutely advocates of free and fair trade," he asserted. "The operative word is 'fair.' "
Brown says that not only is it unfair, it is illegal for countries to sell products into the United States for less than fair market value.
"It is not a Florida issue, it's a national, domestic industry issue. We are not trying to start a trade war," he adds.
The industry has taken on tough issues before and proven its mettle. Brown called on producers to exercise their resolve, urging them to "keep the faith that we as an industry can change the paradigm."
It won't be easy. "We'll have to put our shoulders to the wheel," he says. "But we can't allow the flood of imports into this country at a value that is unsustainable. It will be a challenge; yet I am sure it is one that we can rise to. It will take working together."
Reducing ‘audit fatigue’
On a much lighter note, Brown took the opportunity to applaud the industry on the progress made toward reducing so-called “audit fatigue.”
Much work has been done to develop a standardized audit for tomato growers that will meet all of the food-safety demands of tomato growers’ customers in a single audit.
The audit mechanism offers flexibility depending on what a customer wants, “whether you sell to the customer down the street or deal with a major quick-serve customer,” Brown says.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ food inspection service will become certified to be able to provide whatever level of audit buyers require.
Although there still will be fees associated with each customer’s audit report, grower/shippers will be spared the cost of man-hours to participate in numerous audits.
Many people in the audience indicated that they have to undergo two to four audits every year.
“Multiple audits won’t make crops any safer than a good food safety program executed every day on the farm,” Brown says.