Jul 18, 2008
Tomato Growers Take hit; Asparagus Growers get Money

A couple months ago, I wrote a story about all the hits Florida tomato growers have been taking lately. It ran on the front page of our June issue. The headline was “Florida tomato growers taking it on the chin.”

The story was my attempt at an in-depth study of all the challenges Florida tomato growers have been facing recently: labor controversies, higher input costs, lower profits, budget cuts, growers pulling out, etc.

Growers have always dealt with challenges, but it seemed to me that the ones who happen to grow tomatoes in the Sunshine State were getting dumped on from all sides. I couldn’t pick up a trade magazine or read a headline on the Internet without learning about some new problem facing that state’s industry. It seemed that a long story was in order, something that could tie all the issues together and try to discern the impact they would have on the future of growing tomatoes in Florida.

The story ended on a note of cautious optimism. Despite its troubles, Florida’s industry would probably survive. Things might have reached a low point, but there was nowhere to go but up, right?

Wrong.

Not long after that story was published, FDA reported that an outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul – an uncommon type of salmonella – that had sickened hundreds of people across the country had been linked to the consumption of raw red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes and tomato products. The agency advised consumers not to eat those kinds of tomatoes, especially if they were from regions that were associated with the outbreak. In early June, restaurants, grocery stores and foodservice operators around the country were advised to stop serving tomatoes. Even the Subway where I usually eat lunch stopped serving them for a while, with a note taped to the counter explaining why.

The result of the outbreak and subsequent warnings was the virtual shutdown of the industry, at least for a few days. The stoppage hit Florida, the country’s largest shipper of fresh-market tomatoes, especially hard. Crops were stuck in fields and packinghouses, slowly rotting.

Fortunately, tomatoes from the Ruskin-Palmetto and Quincy areas of the state – Florida’s prime tomato-producing regions – were cleared for consumption June 11, which got the industry moving again. Still, the damage had been done.

And here’s the kicker: Though farms in certain parts of Florida and Mexico were still being investigated in early July, the investigators didn’t seem any closer to finding the source of the outbreak. In fact, an official release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on June 27 that the outbreak might not even be linked to tomatoes.

Meanwhile, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange estimated the June shutdown could add up to more than $500 million in losses for the state’s industry.

That’s a big hit. Will it be a knockout blow? Has the bottom even been reached yet? I wish I had answers to those questions, but only time will tell.

Asparagus money

At least U.S. asparagus growers have some good news. The federal government is giving them a one-time payment of $15 million to help compensate them for the losses they’ve incurred over the last few years as a result of U.S. trade policies.

The money is part of a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill called the Market Loss Assistance Program. Every grower in the country who grew asparagus through 2007 will be eligible to receive a check, according to John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.

“This will not make up for the losses of the last four or five years, but it will help producers stay in business,” Bakker said.

USDA hasn’t written the final rules yet, but Bakker expected the sign-up period for growers to be some time this winter. He said the payment program probably would be based on revenue losses since 2003.

Bakker wasn’t sure of the national numbers, but said more than 200 asparagus growers in Michigan would be eligible for payments. Half the money will go to fresh-market growers, the other half to processing growers, he said.

The Market Loss Assistance Program is the latest, and most successful, effort to salve the U.S. asparagus industry since the enactment of the Andean Trade Preference Act in 1991. Under ATPA (an attempt to curtail drug production), commodities like asparagus and cut flowers from Andean countries were granted duty-free access to the U.S. market virtually overnight. The Peruvian asparagus industry exploded at that point, flooding the United States with inexpensive product and devastating U.S. growers.

For years, the U.S. industry worked on remedies for the situation, but met with failure after failure. The final blow came in 2007, when the Peru Free Trade Agreement was enacted. The Peru agreement superseded ATPA and gave that country’s asparagus industry permanent, duty-free access to the U.S. market, Bakker said.





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