Freeze Hits Tomato, Strawberry Prices

The cold weather that swept across much of the U.S. this winter and sent temperatures plunging in Florida this January is still having repercussions in the produce supply chain. Extensive damage there to tomato and strawberry crops in particular has sent their prices soaring at retail. At grocery stores like Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., the price for some tomato varieties has sky-rocketed

MIAMI — The cold weather that swept across much of the U.S. this winter and sent temperatures plunging in Florida this January is still having repercussions in the produce supply chain. Extensive damage there to tomato and strawberry crops in particular has sent their prices soaring at retail.

At grocery stores like Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., the price for some tomato varieties has sky-rocketed as high as $4.50 per pound.

Publix is looking to source affected products from different areas, especially Mexico, since supply is limited, spokeswoman Maria Brous told SN.

“The weather conditions have affected crops and we expect to see prices continue to rise over the next several weeks,” Brous said. “Since we are always looking to source the best-quality product, locating product from different areas ensures that the product is at peak quality.”

Fresh corn is another produce item that Publix expects to see rising prices on limited quantities, Brous added.

The shortage in supply and higher prices are also affecting quick-service restaurants. Burger King, for example, has had “spot outages” of tomatoes throughout its system, according to a recent corporate statement.

Hardest hit were vegetables that are produced in southwest Florida, said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruits and Vegetables Association, Maitland. The region's tomato growers bore the brunt.

“I know that the tomato industry has estimated that they incurred about a 70% crop loss from that 11-day freeze that happened in January,” she said.

Light supplies of south Florida mature greens and insufficient volume of cherries and roma tomatoes were reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late February.

The USDA also reported grape tomatoes at $25.95-$26.95 for flats of 12 1-pint baskets. Twenty-pound cartons of loose grape tomatoes were selling for $50.95-$51.95, considerably higher than the $16.95 for clamshells and $31.95 for cartons in mid-February.

Officials said it could be late March before tomato crop yields improve.

“I know that tomato growers have said they think they'll be up to normal production, normal volume at the end of March, early April, all other things being equal,” Lochridge said.

“And the strawberry producers have said that in the next week or so, they're hoping to be back to where they should be, but it's been very, very tough for them. Volume is, like I said, way, way down.”

One of the problems confronting a lot of producers is that once the freeze ended, cold temperatures still lingered, which continued to slow production, explained Ted Campbell, executive director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.

“Florida strawberries have been slowed down by the cold weather — just like all of us,” Campbell said. “There is a substantial amount of fruit in the fields; however, the cooler weather has delayed the maturity time. We are again in the 30s at night most of this week.

“Markets are determined by supply and demand, and for most of this winter, we have experienced a diminished supply due to cool weather.”

During the freeze, evening and early morning temperatures dipped below freezing over the course of about 10 days during Jan. 2-13. Jan. 11 saw the coldest readings since December 1989. Consecutive daily record lows were recorded across the state and as far south as Miami on Jan. 10-11.

The unusually cold weather in January affected many crops, but even two weeks before the big freeze, prices had begun to rise due to cold weather virtually stopping plant growth and slowing harvest volume, according to the USDA.

By mid-February, Florida's shipments were only running around 10%-30% of normal for most major vegetables, according to the most recent Vegetables and Melons Outlook report from the USDA Economic Research Service. Sixty of Florida's 67 counties, including all areas where winter fresh produce is grown, were declared natural disaster areas by USDA on Jan. 29.

As far as strawberry volume, about 1 million flats of strawberries are usually picked per week throughout most of January, and well above that in February and March, Campbell said.

“This year has been less than half the normal amount, and farm costs are up significantly as well,” Campbell said. “However, a good week of warm weather would increase our harvest dramatically — which is an option that tomato growers do not have.”

Having to wait for the weather to warm up before harvesting matured strawberries will have its benefits though, Campbell said.

“Since the fruit takes longer on the plant, higher sugar levels develop, which delivers great flavor this year,” he said. “This weather conditioning has also created a superior quality and durability. The strong characteristics of our mid-winter fruit will carry well to our late-season fruit this year, with premium shipping quality continuing well beyond Easter.”

The peak for strawberries is running about a month later this year, “but that creates great consumer value through March and April,” Campbell said, remaining optimistic.

“Stores will see some of the best late-season strawberries that Florida has ever produced. Retail buyers should not ignore this season's unique opportunity to have high-quality flavorful Florida strawberries well into the spring season.”

Lochridge is also looking ahead to when production and supply begin to normalize.

“It's been a tough year so far, but we're hoping that we're going to get past this unusually cold weather and get production back up to where it should be,” she said.