Economy challenges tomato consumption

12/06/2011 01:40:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Florida tomato growers should benefit from increasing consumption trends. The reality, however, doesn’t always match the trend, grower-shippers say.

Doug OhlemeierMature green tomatoes on the vine at East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, south of Plant City, Fla., in early November.Tomatoes didn’t escape harm from the moribund economy, said J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of Plant City-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc., and chief operating officer of Procacci Bros. Sales Inc., Philadelphia.

“The economy is not lending itself for people to afford the luxury of buying organics,” Procacci said.

“The economy has affected high-end tomato demand on the heirlooms, the clusters and the grape tomatoes. It (the economy) has put a lot of pressure on those items and we’re feeling it a little. It’s not significantly affecting us financially, but it’s enough to be noticed.”

Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., said tomatoes may be missing out on the increasing consumption trend.

“They advertise them a lot now, but I’m not sure of what’s happening in consumption,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to be making the produce move any better than it does. There seems to be a little less consumption every year or it’s spread out so far that we don’t see it. There may be more consumption and they are trying to push consumption, but it’s being plugged by other parts of the industry, not Florida tomatoes.”

But Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Co., Homestead, said tomato sales remain solid.

“The overall tomato category has continued to hold its own and has grown a little over the last year,” he said.

“The most recent information I’ve seen shows it’s still experiencing growth. As we know, the mature-greens industry is continuing to shrink. It has been for the last three years. It’s not a crisis but is a serious concern.”

Hispanics remain a big buyer of Florida tomatoes, said Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers.

“With all the growth in immigration, a lot of the first generation people stay home to cook,” Weisinger said.

“Hispanics are the largest group of people that are coming into the U.S. They want to cook. They use tomatoes in almost everything they cook. If we can give them the right kind of product, we can increase our consumption.”

Gerry Odell, chief operating officer of farming and packing for Lipman, characterizes sales as lackluster.

Batista Madonia Jr., vice president of sales and operations for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, said people aren’t eating as healthfully as they should because of cost.

“People cannot afford to go and eat properly,” Madonia said. “They cannot afford to decide if they will buy a loaf of bread or a tomato. They can’t afford to buy both to make a tomato sandwich.”  

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, said he looks to the younger generation to boost demand.

“Where the real growth in that area (increasing consumption) is going to be is with the young people,” he said.

“Obviously, as people get into their middle ages, their thoughts turn to survival versus what tastes good. If we drive that age to where they make the transition from eating fast and unhealthy food because it tastes good and start them on that path in their teens, then it will drive consumption in tomatoes.”

As most teenagers and college students don’t enjoy eating a tomato as they do french fries, Spencer said they in the future may give up the fries for tomatoes at least once a week if they understand the importance of tomatoes for their long-term health.

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