Jamie Williams leans over, snatches a hard, green tomato off a staked vine and slices through the middle in a swift, rote motion he's repeated hundreds of times through the years.
"They're getting close, real close. … They're starting to gel," he says.
Williams, 55, has witnessed the tomato industry's evolution. First, from his family's tomato farm in Immokalee, and now as director of Florida farming for Lipman Produce, the largest field tomato grower in North America. He's seen the emergence of Global Positioning Systems to maximize crop production and the rollout of underground pumping systems. He's seen a migrant worker population once filled with young African-American and Puerto Rican pickers shift to traveling groups of primarily older Hispanic workers.
What he has never seen is a climate in which it's so difficult to make a profit.
"It's been a tough, tough go," agrees Manatee farmer Larry Moss. The basics of farming haven't changed much, he says. "It all comes down to soil, water and sunshine. It's the economics that's changed."
Gas prices are volatile; real estate taxes, insurance and fertilizer costs are all up. Migrant wages have also risen.
Another long-simmering concern is heating up for Florida farmers: Mexican trade.
Florida tomato growers for years have been losing an ongoing skirmish with their Mexican counterparts over variety, perceived taste and price. Last year was particularly brutal, with local farmers saying they were lucky to get more than $3.50 or $4 a box, down from a more typical $6 to $8 a box.
Florida growers accused Mexico of dumping cheap tomatoes on the local market. The U.S. Commerce Department in September responded by issuing a preliminary decision to end a 16-year-old trade agreement, which could be an initial step toward prohibiting or curtailing Mexican tomato imports.
Both sides are now digging in for a fight.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says the initial trade agreement and two flawed revisions over the years have left Florida farmers at a disadvantage. Tomatoes are Florida's third-largest crop, behind oranges and greenhouse nursery.
"I believe in free trade. But free trade also has to be fair," Putnam said. "Our growers are seeking the opportunity … to prove that their competitors are breaking the rules. … All they want is a fair chance to compete. Right now these growers … (who) simply want to work hard and play by the rules, are being denied that right."
Mexican farmers have warned that the Commerce Department's action could trigger tariffs and ignite a trade war, a scenario that would hurt other U.S. agricultural producers.
To help assuage the tension, Mexican growers have recently proposed increasing the floor price of their tomatoes by 25 percent, which could increase what Florida growers could charge. They would also agree to extending the current agreement to cover 100 percent of Mexican tomatoes. Right now, 15 percent of Mexican tomatoes are not subject to the price controls.
Martin Ley, a representative for the growers from Mexico, accuses his Florida counterparts of playing politics, seizing on a presidential election year to gain an unfair advantage in pricing.
Mexican growers maintain the issue isn't about price but rather quality, with poorer-tasting Florida tomatoes losing out. Florida isn't the best environment for raising tomatoes anyway, they say. The soil is too sandy; the weather can be unpredictable; the price of land and taxes and fuel and wages all too high.
"Mexico is not the problem. The problem is (Florida) has not evolved. … They have become irrelevant in the marketplace," Ley said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "They've continued to supply tomatoes the consumer doesn't want. It's a tomato that is very usable for processing, for slicing, for fast-food outlets. But it's not a tomato that consumer wants to buy in retail stores."
Florida growers counter that Mexico may be supplying more varieties — for now — but they're defensive when it comes to taste.
Lipman CEO Kent Shoemaker acknowledges that over the years there has been "some validity" to criticism of the taste of Florida tomatoes. But the hype is overblown, times have changed and quality has improved, he said.
Red tomatoes off the vine may be "prettier" than those picked green that ripen after the fact. "But I'll put one of our sun-drenched, Florida-produced tomatoes up against (other) produce any time," Shoemaker said. "You bite into a fresh, juicy, healthy Florida tomato, and there is nothing better than that."
Barry Estabrook doesn't see it that way.
In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, a scathing book about the industry that came out last year, Estabrook blasted Florida growers for cultivating a product bred for a long shelf life, not for taste.
The mass-produced tomatoes are picked when they're hard and green, packed, artificially turned orange with ethylene gas and then shipped. Customers, he said, have gradually become accustomed to flavorless Florida tomatoes at supermarkets.
But Mexico's move toward specialized, better-tasting tomatoes seems to have been a wakeup call to Florida, Estabrook said in an interview last week.
Florida growers are tapping more scientific research and ratcheting up production of heirloom and on-the-vine tomatoes like the UglyRipe and Tasti-Lee varieties. Lipman's Vintage Ripe vine-ripened tomatoes are drawing foodies, too.
Still, most of Florida's output remains the gassed, green, round tomatoes. And that's why it's continuing to lose the taste war to Mexico, said Jim Prevor, a Boca Raton-based industry analyst and founder of the perishablepundit.com website.
"The Mexican industry is much larger, and it consists much more of the tomatoes sold in various stages of ripeness. They tend to be softer," Prevor said. "Florida grows some fantastic specialty tomatoes, but there's just too few of them."
If Florida growers win sanctions against Mexican imports, he said, Florida consumers could lose in two ways: They would pay higher prices at the supermarket, and there will be less variety.
"In fact," he added, "there is not enough production capacity in Florida to offset all the capacity coming in from Mexico."
That's particularly true with specialties like the vine-ripened tomato. "There's almost none of the vine-ripened stuff here," Prevor said.
The tomato's future
Florida's tomato industry has been shrinking for years, losing nearly 30 percent of its acreage over the past decade alone. Growers insist they're fighting back by:
• Using technology to boost yields, keep down costs and improve quality. Rows of tomato beds are elevated in soil protected by plastic covering. In sharp contrast to the sandy Florida surface outside, the soil is kept rich and dark by generators that force-feed water and pesticides in.
• Banding together. Few independent farmers are left. Most family growers are owned by or aligned with large networks like Lipman.
• Devoting more acreage to heirloom, vine-ripened tomatoes and other specialties.
• Diversifying. Lipman, for instance, grows everything from butternut squash to peppers to watermelons on farms from Florida to Virginia. It has repacking and processing centers, so it remains part of the farm-to-market process regardless of where the produce comes from.
Will that be enough to secure the future of the Florida tomato?
"The problem isn't that they're not reacting; it's whether they reacted fast enough," Estabrook said.
Prevor, the industry analyst, wonders if enough farmers will be able to adapt to growing a different tomato to meet consumer demands. He compares the situation to tobacco farmers in North Carolina who were reluctant to switch crops after demand fell.
Growing an heirloom tomato, he said, requires a different environment, different skills from growing the typical round, slicing tomato. Workers have to treat heirlooms more gingerly.
Williams, the Lipman manager, believes growers are already learning and adapting.
They have to, he says.
"I'd hate to think of Florida without agriculture, I can tell you that."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]