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Tomatoes return as prices steady

Local restaurants may be breathing a small sigh of relief nowthat tomato prices seem to be tapering off after hittingnear-record highs.

“Tomato prices in early December fell significantly as a resultof stronger tomato shipments from both Florida and Mexico,” saidGary Lucier of the United States Department of Agriculture.”Weather and market conditions led to the high prices in Octoberand November, and seasonal factors set the stage for recovery inDecember.”

Lucier said two unusually severe storms hit central Californiain October, in addition to the unprecedented series of mid- tolate-summer hurricanes and tropical storms that brought winds andheavy rains to the East Coast. In Florida, the storms delayed ordamaged fall plantings of crops such as tomatoes and bellpeppers.

“Florida accounts for 57 percent of the fresh-market tomatoes,while California accounts for 20 percent,” said Lucier of thereason for increasing market prices.

Highs of $60 to $75 per case of tomatoes and inadequate producehad local fast food chains scaling back their use of tomatoes andlettuce in their products.

A sign was posted at Burger King’s Brookway Boulevard locationlast week, alerting customers that certain items on the menu wouldnot include tomatoes or lettuce, manager Trinia Haynes said.

“The first week of December seemed to be the worst,” Haynessaid. “We had a shortage during this time, and we just did not havequality lettuce and tomatoes. “Our tomatoes were so bad because weget them from Florida.”

Haynes said a shortage sometimes occurs in December and Februaryand that the fast food chain trys to anticipate that.

“Sometimes our tomatoes are more expensive than our meat, butwe’re more concerned with the quality of the produce.”

Haynes said she tried looking locally for tomatoes but the $75 acase quoted by a Hazlehurst grocery store was too much.

“September prices were $15 to $16 a case. They went up as highas $45 a case through our distributor,” said Haynes. “On my lastinvoice, I paid $42.86 a case.” That was down, she said, from thefirst week in December.

A case typically holds 25 pounds of tomatoes.

Wayne Smith Greenhouses, owned by Debbie and Wayne Smith, offergreenhouse tomatoes, which Debbie Smith said are different fromfield-grown tomatoes.

Smith said prices for her tomatoes have remained fairlysteady.

“I hadn’t gone up (in prices) in six years, until last year, andwent up a little more this year because of the gas prices.” saidDebbie Smith. “Our prices are constant.” The Smiths have owned thegreenhouses for 34 years.

“I’ve seen a little more demand,” said Debbie Smith. “A few ofthe smaller eating establishments have been getting their tomatoesfrom me.” She said the bigger chains don’t normally use greenhousetomatoes.

Currently, the Smiths’ business ships about 4,000 to 5,000pounds of tomatoes per week.

“The difference between my (greenhouse) tomatoes and fieldtomatoes are that mine are vine ripe,” said Debbie Smith. “Theothers are picked mature green and then gassed to ripen them.”Smith’s tomatoes are grown hydroponically, or without soil.

“We grow ours in Perlite, but we have grown them in pine barkand sand.”

During the peak season, which is mid-March to mid-June, thebusiness picks and packs 10 to 15 thousand pounds per week, DebbieSmith said.

Prices for field tomatoes are starting to settle the USDA’sLucier said.

“Market prices for mature green tomatoes shipped from Floridahave declined to about $0.53 cents per pound,” Lucier said.

That is the shipping-point price to wholesalers, brokers andother handlers.

“They in turn will transport the product and sell to foodservice and retail outlets,” he said.

Tomato prices are expected to continue to drop. The NovemberU.S. retail price will be released at 7:30 a.m. CDT Friday.