Agri Leader

Why some tomatoes get left behind

So what’s the story behind unpicked tomatoes — fields and fields of them — you might see in Florida this time of year?

I live near a few of those fields and have driven past them daily the past couple of weeks, and I just had to find out the story. The tomato plant’s fruit (yup, tomato’s a fruit, not a vegetable) looks ripe to me, although the leaves are brown. As a consumer, not a farmer, I didn’t know if my drive-by assessment was accurate.

“I have people asking me why tomato growers don’t pick certain fields. The biggest reason is they’re too small,” said Tony Jennison, production manager at West Coast Tomato in Palmetto. “From a distance, the tomatoes appear bigger than they are.”

Apparently, commercial growers will use tomato fields three or even four times within a season. The first pick yields the biggest fruit, said Jennison, but subsequent harvests yield smaller tomatoes. By the third pick or thereafter, the fruit sometimes isn’t even big enough to meet market standards.

Once a tomato field has produced its best picks, growers will kill off what’s in the field, burn the stakes, and cultivate the ground, said Jennison.

I also made contact with Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee in Maitland, but who I like to think of as The Tomato Man. I see him quoted in just about all major articles on Florida tomatoes.

“There needs to be a certain number of marketable fruit to send a crew to harvest it,” said Brown. With tomato season in Florida winding down, growers may be eyeing the fields for other uses. While seeing the fields unpicked this time of year is not unusual, Brown said growers won’t let them stay that way for long. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the plants to attract disease.

Although some years you’ll see unpicked tomatoes due to excess supply, that’s not the case this year, said Brown.

Brown also addressed the cost factor — in other words, how much growers can make from their tomatoes at a given moment. As you can imagine, availability of local tomatoes along with competition can affect cost. “There continues to be supply from the Mexican production system and greenhouse products in Canada,” said Brown.

There’s apparently a lot of thought that goes into the pricing of that tomato you’re using in tonight’s salad.

Growers in different tomato-heavy areas of the state have to coordinate when they harvest to avoid excess overlap, said Brown.

As a reminder, while we all hail Florida citrus, tomatoes don’t do too shabby, either. Florida and California lead the ranks of U.S. fresh tomato production.

You also might see smaller, non-commercial farms with unused tomatoes this time of year. The good news is that you can sometimes take advantage of that excess. For example, Hunsader Farms in Bradenton is inviting folks to come by through the end of this month to pick tomatoes for only $2 a bucket, said manager Kim Hunsader. “It’s because we have way too many tomatoes,” she said. “We always have a u-pick section, but the price is so low now, that’s why we do this.” The low-cost tomato picking takes place annually at Hundsader Farms.