Bleak demand frustrates produce growers

Farms are selling Florida tomatoes and peppers at bargain prices, but many supermarkets may not be passing the savings on to their customers, leaving growers with fields of unsold crops.

For farms trying to recover from losses caused by Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, the depressed market prices and low shipping volumes are creating yet another disaster for growers. “Growers in south Florida are having to leave fields unpicked to rot on the vine,” says Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA).

“Supermarkets are pushing consumers away with inflated prices, and at a time when growers have worked so hard to produce a high-quality crop following the storms,” says Stuart.

Following the historic series of hurricanes that destroyed thousands of acres of Florida vegetable crops last fall, supplies of tomatoes, peppers and other commodities were in short supply through much of October and November. Farm prices reflected the shortages, with retailers charging customers double or triple the normal prices. Many consumers balked at paying them.

Starting in late November, Florida farms returned to normal production volume, with farm prices dropping accordingly. But many supermarket prices have remained high, which in turn has discouraged consumers from purchasing fresh tomatoes and peppers.

For example, farm prices for large round tomatoes are about $4-to $5 per standard 25-pound box — equating to 16 to 20 cents per pound. By contrast, major retail chains in northeast markets, according to surveys (week ending Jan. 7) by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, are charging $1.50 to $3 per pound or more for those same tomatoes — equating to a markup ranging from nine to 19 times the farm price.

Hefty retail markups are also believed to be hurting consumer demand for peppers. Current farm prices for bell peppers range from about $7 to $12 for a 31-pound shipping carton (11/9 bushel) — equating to 23 to 39 cents per pound. Surveyed retailer prices range from $1 to $3 per pound — a markup of about two to four times the farm price.

“Florida's growers are trying to win back consumers with an abundant, great quality product at a bargain price,” adds Stuart. “American consumers are smart enough to know today's high retail prices for tomatoes and peppers have nothing to do with last summer's hurricanes.”

Dietary guidelines released recently by the federal government recommend Americans increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables to help fight obesity, diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses. FFVA suggests consumers compare supermarkets to avoid paying high prices for their favorite fresh produce items. Farmers markets and independent produce retailers may provide economical alternatives.

Additionally, FFVA urges growers to donate surplus crops to America's Second Harvest Food Bank, Farm Share or similar organizations.

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