Last year's hurricanes hit today's vegetable industry

MAITLAND, 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.

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