March 6, 2010 in Business, Food, Nation/World

Florida’s deep freeze making tomatoes scarce

Hugo Martmn And P.J. Huffstutter Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Ripe tomatoes are left unpicked in a field Thursday in Plant City, Fla. The recent cold weather in Florida has been especially hard on tomato farmers and is predicted to drive up prices at the grocery store.
(Full-size photo)

Because of frigid temperatures in Florida, you might have to enjoy a BLT without the T.

Freezing winter weather in the Sunshine State has wiped out nearly 70 percent of that state’s tomato crop, sending prices soaring in many parts of the country and forcing fast food restaurants to ration supplies of the plump, popular fruit.

In California, one of the nation’s largest tomato producers, the Florida freeze is being felt to a degree. At a Wendy’s in Santa Clarita, Calif., for instance, the staff had taped up a sign near the drive-through menu that broke the bad news: The Florida chill was making tomatoes scarce, at least for the time being. Inside the restaurant, a customer frowned after biting into a cheeseburger. The only red on the sandwich was from the ketchup.

A representative for Atlanta-based Wendy’s said tomatoes would be included in its meals only at the customer’s request. In Oakbrook, Ill., McDonald’s said the tomato crisis had not changed operations at the restaurant chain.

Nationally, most of the smaller tomato varieties have been spared, said Phil Lempert, editor of the Lempert Report, an industry report that focuses on supermarket, restaurant and agricultural trends. The larger tomatoes, such as beefsteaks, have been hardest hit, and in some grocery stores in the Northeast, the price has already doubled on these larger types, he said.

“I’m telling people to pass on the fresh right now, and just pick up a can of crushed tomatoes for your burgers,” Lempert said. “They taste better, and it’ll be cheaper.”

The cold weather began in January, at the height of the tomato harvest season in Florida, the nation’s largest tomato producer. Last year, the state produced up to 25 million pounds of tomatoes a week. Since the freeze began to wither away at the tomato plants, Florida has been shipping about 1.1 million pounds per week. In California, much of the fresh tomato harvest gets under way in summer. “We just don’t have anything right now,” said Skip Jonah, a spokesman for the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade group in Maitland, Fla.

The shortage has lead to wholesale price increases of more than 400 percent. The average wholesale price for a 25-pound box of tomatoes is now $30, up from $6.25 last year, Jonah said.

Meteorologists said the depth and length of the latest cold weather was unusual.

“Freezes happen maybe once every five years or so in central and southern Florida, where most of the tomatoes are grown,” said Dan Kottlowski, a senior meteorologist for weather service Web site Accuweather.com. “But they’re usually not this long and not this frequently.”

Lempert warned that tomatoes may be the first item in the grocery store to increase in price because of unusually cold weather.

Over the past few weeks, Lempert said, bad weather in South and Central American has caused coffee prices to rise. Orange juice prices have also been affected, as the Florida freeze chilled orange groves. He warned that grain and corn crops – two key commodities used for animal feed and bread products – could be next.

“Come spring, we’re going to see increases in almost every agricultural crop there is,” Lempert said. “It’s because of Mother Nature, and we often forget that so much of our food comes from the ground. Whether it’s tomatoes, or corn and grain that’s to be fed to livestock, when in it’s in short supply, guess what? Prices go up.”

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