Florida's Deep Freeze Puts The Squeeze On Tomatoes

fromWGCU

It's been a tough winter for Florida's tomato crop. A devastating freeze last month wiped out production by 70 percent. The state provides almost all of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. during this time of year. Farmers are struggling, and soon consumers will notice it too.

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It's been a tough winter for Florida's tomato crop. A devastating freeze last month wiped out production by 70 percent. The state provides almost all of the tomatoes consumed in the U.S. during this time of year. Farmers are struggling and soon consumers will notice it too.

Luis Hernandez of member station WGCU has the story.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: Wintertime is not usually a cold time in southwest Florida, but farmers have spent the past few weeks trying to protect their crops from unusual freezing weather.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HERNANDEZ: Late on a recent evening, Jose Cruz Nodari(ph) waves a flashlight at a thermostat posted at the end of a row of tomatoes. It reads 41 degrees and much colder temperatures are expected in several hours. Nodari's the foreman for Felder Tomato Growers, a 500-acre operation in Collier County. He lost some of his crop during the last freeze and doesn't want it to happen again.

Mr. JOSE CRUZ NODARI (Foreman, Felder Tomato Growers): We're a little hurt right now. And with all this cold weather, it ain't helping us any. We're hoping to overcome this and maybe it'll help us here to recover what we lost.

HERNANDEZ: Florida's January freeze is estimated to have destroyed more than $400 million worth of crops, most of it tomatoes. Nodari says he's not taking any chances this time around. As he watches workers in tractors spray a wax-like chemical to help insulate the plants, he says he's worried.

Mr. NODARI: Yes, of course, I'm worried(ph). You know, I'm hoping, not just for us, but every farmer to make some money so we can keep on working, you know, we can keep working.

HERNANDEZ: It's more than just farmers who are concerned. In Amackley(ph), an agricultural community east of Naples, hundreds of migrant workers struggle to pay rent, utilities and put food on the table. Lines in front of soup kitchens in churches are often hundreds of people long. Local businesses, like Primo Supermarket, have seen customers dwindle.

(Soundbite of supermarket)

HERNANDEZ: Market owner John Ahmad(ph) says this is normally his busiest time, but it's the worst he's seen in more than a decade.

Mr. JOHN AHMAD: Our mornings are really bad. They used to be - they start off the day really good 'cause everybody would come here to get their bread, their coffee, their juice. But we don't see that anymore because no one's working, you know?

HERNANDEZ: Ahmad's store is also a popular pickup and drop-off spot for farm workers. He notes that buses still come in the morning, but leave only half full. Businesses which rely on tomatoes have begun to notice the shortage. Tina Fitzgerald is the produce director at Independent Purchasing Cooperative, which busy produce for Subway sandwich shops. She says franchise owners are paying more for tomatoes and that means customers still soon notice a difference.

Ms. TINA FITZGERALD (Produce Director, Independence Purchasing Cooperative): Because there's literally no product left in Florida and there will not be any available until about mid-April. So, we're going to have to source solely from Puerto Rico and Mexico.

HERNANDEZ: Fitzgerald says the shape and size of tomatoes may change for a while, but the quality will remain high. Other fast food restaurants are struggling too. Burger King has signs posted as some restaurants warning customers of the tomato shortage.

Back in Amackley, in the dark cabin of his truck, foreman Jose Cruz Nodari calls the farm's owner. Nodari plans to come back to the fields in the middle of the night to check the temperatures again. He says he hopes the weather will warm up soon or the season could be a total loss.

For NPR News, I'm Luis Hernandez in Fort Meyers, Florida.

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