Florida, January 21, 2005 (ENS): The effects
of last year's four Florida hurricanes are still being
felt across the state in the failure of the tomato industry
this winter, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable
Association, an agricultural trade organization.
Low consumer demand for tomatoes as a result of high
prices means hundreds of migrant farm workers across
South Florida are out of work, and growers are watching
what crops they were able to bring to maturity wither
on the vines.
Consumers are balking at paying the high prices many
supermarkets are charging for tomatoes. A survey commissioned
by Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association of several
eastern markets shows some retailers are charging up
to $4 per pound.
By contrast, Florida growers are receiving less than
15 cents per pound - a price that does not recover the
cost of harvesting and packing. Growers cannot afford
to hire workers with farm prices so low.
"Supplies of tomatoes and other Florida crops
were scarce and prices were high following the hurricanes
that hit Florida farms last summer, but we've been close
to normal volume since Thanksgiving," said Mike
Stuart, president of Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
"If we can get consumers buying tomatoes again,
we can get the farm crews back to work."
"Because some of the farms have not been able
to pick, that translates into many harvesters not working,
as well as some of the workers in the packinghouses
not working," said Tony DiMare, president of DiMare
Co. DiMare says some contractors have come to growers
looking for pay advances for the workers.
"People forget that farm workers are the ones
who can least afford to lose money during a market crisis
like this," said Barbara Mainster, executive director
of Redlands Christian Migrant Association, an organization
that provides child care and educational opportunities
for migrant and rural children throughout the state
of Florida. "Every day that goes by that workers
don't get to pick tomatoes puts them further in the
hole," Mainster said.
Relief for the grower, packer and worker may be on
the way. Following a tour of tomato fields January 18,
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson told
farmers in South Miami-Dade County he will launch a
national campaign to urge large retailers to drop prices,
encourage demand and stimulate work opportunities for
South Florida's farmworkers.
"For the sake of the workers who have come to
Florida specifically to pick tomatoes, peppers and other
crops, growers, retailers and food service distributors
need to work together to prevent a human disaster in
South Florida," Mainster said.
But damage has already been done. "Because of
the marketing situation, if you're not able to pick
and pack all your tomatoes, that's going to have a major
impact on the workers' revenue stream at the end of
the season," said DiMare.