In a dynamic industry, tomato varieties and packaging are changing.
Florida isn’t all about oranges — Florida is also the No. 1 grower of tomatoes. In 2021, the state produced $324 million of fresh market tomatoes, which comprised 54% of the U.S. value, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
Florida tomatoes — which include cherry, grape, Roma, round and heirloom varieties — are harvested from October to June. North Florida harvest begins in October and is followed by central Florida (primarily southeast of Tampa Bay), which peaks in November and early December.
“Tomato production will begin moving south in mid-December for the South Florida winter harvest that will run through March,” says Michael Schadler, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee (FTC) and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange (FTE), Orlando, FL. “Then it’s back to Central Florida in the spring, and North Florida in the late spring and early summer.”
Hurricane Idalia did not have a meaningful impact on the tomato growing areas, so Florida expects normal tomato volumes this year.
“Our tomato plants are in the ground, and I think they look good after the storm,” says Liz Torres, vice president of Tomato Thyme in Sarasota, FL. The company harvests in Sarasota in the fall and in West Palm Beach in the spring.
“Like every season, we start out with lots of optimism, and hope for no major storms,” says Joseph Procacci III, chief executive of Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. in Philadelphia, PA. “It looks like a promising season; everything is on time and quality looks good. We just want to get the tomatoes harvested in time and get them to the customer.”
Procacci Brothers distributes tomatoes to retail, wholesale and foodservice. It supplies Northeast retailers from its tomato farms in Immokalee, FL.
“Our field-grown tomatoes come out of Florida when available. This is typically in January and during the winter season,” says Brandon Bentley, category manager of vegetables at Tops Friendly Markets in Williamsville, NY.
In other seasons, Tops procures greenhouse tomatoes from Canada, which is close to its upstate New York location.
CHALLENGES: LABOR AND COSTS
Although the Florida weather cooperated this year, growers face challenges that include rising input costs, a labor shortage and complex government rules.
“Growing produce continues to be more and more challenging — as farmers, we need to do more with less while delivering on evolving consumer expectations,” says Morgan Stuckert, marketing manager of Lipman Family Farms in Immokalee, FL. “Consumers are demanding new, exciting flavors and are curious to learn more about where their food comes from.”
Growers are challenged when it comes to locating enough affordable harvest workers.
“H-2A (for temporary agricultural workers) is the only labor bank that gives growers the opportunity to be able to afford available labor at the time of picking,” says Dirk Miller, president and owner of Todd’s Quality Tomatoes in Sanford, FL.
“Florida became an E-Verify state on July 1. So, every new employee has to be documented. And they are always changing the rules for the H-2A program, which we’ve used. They are making it tougher and more expensive,” says Torres of Tomato Thyme.
There are further regulation requirements from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For example, traceability must be down to the seed level, and Florida distributors are not permitted to reuse any boxes.
COMPETITION: IMPORTED AND GREENHOUSE
In addition to these challenges, the Florida tomato business faces competition from lower-priced imported and greenhouse tomatoes.
“Mexican competition is heavy all year long, but particularly in the winter and early spring. Canadian greenhouse producers ship heavy volumes in the spring and summertime,” says Schadler of FTC and FTE.
“The tomato industry is very dynamic. New tomato types — particularly snacking varieties — are constantly being released.”– Michael Schadler, Florida Tomato Committee and Florida Tomato Exchange
“I feel like there are fewer growers, less competition and more products being sold to consumers that are hothouse. The hothouse tomatoes have a consistent price and quality,” says Miller. “You may want to buy local, but weather conditions don’t always allow it.”
Todd’s pulls tomatoes from South Florida and also sells imports and hothouse. Todd’s biggest seller is the regular gassed round tomatoes, which are picked green, then infused with ethylene gas in a controlled atmosphere so the tomato ripens from the inside out.
PRIDE IN PRODUCE
Juicy, red tomatoes are versatile and delicious, which is likely why Americans consume 22 to 24 pounds of tomatoes per person per year, according to the USDA. And retailers have the ability to spotlight Florida-grown tomatoes.
“I think Florida growers can help themselves by being proud of their produce. Since a lot of snowbirds come from the East Coast, Florida tomato growers could provide point-of-sale at East Coast supermarkets that say ‘Snowbirds love us,’” says Bentley of Tops Friendly Markets.
FDACS promotes Fresh From Florida produce via media campaigns, in-store displays, sampling events and strategic partnerships. For the 2022-2023 fiscal year, 189 Florida tomato ads ran in weekly circulars among Northeast U.S., Southeast U.S. and Canadian retailers.
“Fresh from Florida promotes Florida tomatoes in broadcast and streaming radio ads, digital display, social media and shoppable ads,” says Donna Watson, industry communications, division of marketing and development for FDACS in Tallahassee, FL. “Fresh From Florida also shares original content, including recipe videos, to its 700,000 social media followers.”
At Tops, Bentley uses Fresh from Florida for promotional items such as logo ads and point-of-sale materials. “They also give us insight: They are right in touch with the farmers, and that is a big deal.”
The campaign also provides incentive dollars to partner retailers that promote Florida produce, seafood or horticulture; prominently include the Fresh From Florida logo; and provide specific promotion results.
FOCUS ON FLAVOR
Shoppers choose tomatoes for flavor, versatility and nutritional content. Ripe tomatoes are chock full of lycopene — a phytochemical with antioxidant properties — as well as vitamin A and vitamin C. And new tomato varieties taste better and better.
“Flavor profiles are gaining on the larger tomatoes. The intensity of the flavor has increased,” says Bentley.
He says a higher-end tomato provides a better eating experience.
At Lipman Family Farms, the research and development department focuses on improving flavor, color, disease resistance and shelf life among open-field varieties. The grower/packer/distributor has developed the Crimson, a deep red tomato that grows on the vine in Florida.
“The Crimson (a Lipman exclusive) has a higher lycopene content, better color and strong shelf life, attributes that please both retailers and consumers. It’s the best domestically grown tomato in the market during winter season and will now be available for national distribution beginning this October,” says Stuckert of Lipman Family Farms.
TRENDS IN TOMATOES
Current trends include an increase in fresh-cut tomato options for retail deli, growth of on-the-vine tomatoes, and an increase in home cooking.
“People like to be creative and use tomatoes as an entree or a condiment or a side. Tomato consumption goes up if you have home cooking,” says Rick Feighery, vice president of Procacci Brothers Sales in Philadelphia, PA.
Another trend is ongoing inflation, with increasing input costs driving higher prices.
“As a distributor, we are faced with 10-15% increases from electricity to gas to fuel. Unfortunately, those are passed on to foodservice and the retail client,” says Miller of Todd’s Quality Tomatoes.
Yet consumers seek discounts, such as on-the-vine tomatoes for 99 cents.
“As a retailer, it is our job to fight the good fight for the consumer. We do that by developing good products. We have the right price at the right time with the right product,” says Bentley of Tops Friendly Markets.
Another trend is companies turning to automation to enhance efficiency and address the labor shortage.
“We just purchased new equipment for sorting, and that will equal less time,” says Torres of Tomato Thyme. The company also added automatic labeling — one label per tomato, per clamshell or per box.
SALES AND PACKAGING
Florida produces over 1 billion pounds of tomatoes per year, says Schadler of FTE and FTC. Some growers focus more on retail, but the biggest volume of the Florida tomato crop goes to the foodservice sector.
“What we learned from COVID, is what we think we know, is not what we know. With secondary handlers and packers, we thought it was going to retail — but movement shifted and more went to foodservice,” says Procacci III of Procacci Brothers Sales.
“It looks like a promising season; everything is on time and quality looks good. We just want to get the tomatoes harvested in time and get them to the customer.”– Joseph Procacci III, Procacci Brothers Sales Corp., Philadelphia, PA
At retail stores, tomatoes can be arranged to encourage sales. Cherry and grape tomatoes can be displayed together. Higher-end tomatoes can be presented as offering an excellent eating experience.
“Tomatoes are typically merchandised on a tomato table, but you can also put them with cucumbers or lettuce. If certain tomatoes can be refrigerated, you can tie them in with salad in a refrigerated case and promote that extra purchase at point-of-sale,” says Bentley.
As the industry evolves, tomato varieties and packaging are changing. Tomato Thyme packages cherry and grape tomatoes in clamshells, and vine-ripe tomatoes in a plastic bag or two-layer box. It offers 4-ounce snacking cups of grape tomatoes. From Lipman Family Farms, Roma tomatoes come in a resealable bag, overwrap tray, zipper bag, top-seal tray or bulk box.
“The tomato industry is very dynamic. New tomato types — particularly snacking varieties — are constantly being released,” says Schadler. “Packaging innovation continues to be ever-changing, as growers/shippers try to distinguish their products at retail.”