For many Florida tomato growers, a terrible season is ending with an impossible choice - harvest their crops at a loss of almost 50 cents on the dollar or cut production costs by leaving the fruit to rot on the vine.
Cold temperatures in January and February killed many tomato plants and caused a shortage that pushed the average wholesale price of winter tomatoes to $30 for a 25-pound box by early March. Grocery stores raised their prices in turn, with some charging nearly $4 a pound.
Rather than pay up, consumers became used to doing without. Now, as the surviving plants mature, there are more tomatoes than farmers can sell.
"Restaurants had been taking them off the menu or charging more for a tomato on a sandwich ... and people just stopped eating them," said Reggie Brown, manager for the Florida Tomato Committee. "Now we need everyone to go out and buy some."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture initially ordered 1.3 million pounds of tomatoes, but Brown said that wasn't enough when central Florida is producing between 6 million and 8 million pounds daily.
On Friday, the USDA announced it would order an additional 31.5 million pounds at a cost of $6 million to help farmers and provide additional produce through federal food assistance programs.
Florida is the only place in the U.S. where tomatoes are grown on a large scale during winter. Jay Scott, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida, said farmers stagger their planting every couple of weeks to ensure there's a continuous supply available from
October to mid-June. But cold weather delayed the plants' maturation this year and when warm weather arrived at the end of April, several cycles ripened at once, causing a glut.
To break even, farmers need to get $8 to $9 per 25-pound box of tomatoes; right now, they're averaging only about $4.75, Scott said. Many grocers have dropped their prices too. For example, Publix supermarkets throughout the South are selling Florida vine ripened tomatoes for $1.29 a pound, almost a 70 percent decrease from only a few months earlier.
Ed Angrisani, co-owner of Taylor & Fulton Packing in Palmetto, said he doesn't know how much longer his company will survive.
He has worked at the tomato farm for almost 30 years and been an owner for three. His operation is abandoning its crop for the first time since he's been there. As for the USDA's efforts to bail out the Florida tomato industry, Angrisani said it's only a drop in the bucket when his farm alone is producing an average of 800,000 pounds of tomatoes daily.
"The government has not been our friend. It's like they threw us this bone, and it's not even a bone ... it's a slap in the face," Angrisani said.
Angrisani added that the government bid process is so full of red tape, it can take weeks for an order to actually go through - time he doesn't have to waste.
He blamed the current crisis on everything working against tomato farmers this year - from the weather to the economy to the increase of imports from Mexico.
But although the number of fresh tomatoes imported from Mexico increased 34 percent in the first three months of this year compared to last year, that was to offset the shortage of domestic produce caused by the freeze and is not affecting the current market, the USDA said.
"Mexican imports are at their peak during the winter, but they're in the declining stage now. That's the way it normally works," said Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the USDA. "When it gets into May and June, U.S.-grown products are the biggest part of the equation by far."
Lucier said it's unfortunate that some farmers may abandon their tomatoes, but that sometimes happens in all areas of the fresh produce industry. It comes down to whether Mother Nature decides to cooperate.
Abandoning his crop is not an option for Billy Heller, CEO of Pacific Tomato Growers. The Palmetto-based farm is one of the largest in the state. Heller said the farm hopes to make up for its losses here by selling tomatoes planted in California and Georgia at a higher price once the market stabilizes.
"All tomato farmers are getting killed. ... These are very difficult times, but there's nothing we can do," he said. "Once we put (the plant) in the ground, we've got to see it through.
"This is what we do, this is what feeds America."